In these days of entrapping human rights activists and blacklisting ‘traitors,’ the concept of equality has become as radical as it gets — and a threat to everything the governing regime stands for.
Last week Israeli lawmakers had the opportunity to take a first step towards enshrining equality in the law. They rejected this opportunity, voting down Joint List MK Jamal Zahalka’s proposed amendment to include a clause on equality in Israel’s Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
The vote was taken on a preliminary reading of Zahalka’s bill, meaning that it was shot down before it even left the starting blocks. The majority of Likud, along with the centrist Yesh Atid and Kulanu, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties, voted against the bill. The Joint List, Meretz and Zionist Union voted in favor.
It may at first seem hard to fathom why Zahalka’s bill was rejected. It simply proposed adding a section to one of Israel’s Basic Laws (which collectively make up the closest thing Israel has to a constitution) that would legally declare the country a state of all its citizens, by stipulating that there can be no discrimination against Israeli citizens on grounds of race, nationality, gender, religion, religious denomination, opinions, personal or social status, political affiliation, or for any other reason. This should be a natural state of affairs for any democracy.
Yet the proposed clause strikes at the heart of a contradiction Israel has been grappling with for nearly 70 years. Israel’s Declaration of Independence contained the competing visions of a Jewish state and a state that treats all its citizens equally regardless of race, gender or religion. With the best will in the world, a country that places one ethnic or religious group above all else cannot offer full equality. It will always have second-class citizens, even if they have the appearance of holding full civic rights (which is currently not the case for non-Jews in Israel).
Even the opening paragraph of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty sets out its purpose of “establish[ing] in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” The addition of an equality clause would thus contradict the law’s stated aim.
By rejecting this amendment, the Israeli government has in effect ratified by omission the idea that certain groups can take priority over others. And indeed, any Israeli citizen who is Palestinian, queer, non-halakhically Jewish or simply not Jewish at all, is denied rights and freedoms that are automatically granted to others.
The absence of an equality clause also leaves the door open for the passing of discriminatory legislation, as has been proved in Israel: since 1948, over 50 laws have been passed that “directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens,” according to Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
This reality denies the ethical values set down in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The first clause of that document states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This foundational principle — equality by birth — is the basis for all other human and civic rights, as Zahalka argued in his proposal when submitting the Basic Law amendment.
This understanding of liberty and dignity also provides recourse when there is no legal precedent in a situation relating to such rights, allowing for humane decisions to be made in the absence of specific guidance.
Don’t question policies, don’t challenge laws
The current version of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was used to precisely this effect in 2011, when a Tel Aviv District Court judge wrote a stirring legal opinion ruling that Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk had the right to be registered by the state as “without religion.” As a rule, everyone who meets the rabbinate’s criteria is automatically classified as Jewish, whether they identify as such or not.
“We face a demand for freedom from religion in the civil registry,” the judge wrote. “Freedom from religion is derived from human dignity, which is protected in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. When the given law is laconic, the fundamental right shall decide, which tilts the scales in favor of the claimant and his self-definition in the registry.”
The judge’s legal opinion was true to the letter and spirit of that opening clause of the UDHR. He understood that Kaniuk’s right to personal dignity and liberty trumped the state’s self-appointed task of categorizing people how it sees fit, and handed down a legal opinion based on consciousness and compassion — both of which are essential to maintaining equality.
When George Orwell wrote that orthodoxy is unconsciousness, he was referring to the kind of dogmatism that rules out thinking for oneself. It’s the kind of unconsciousness that repressive governments require of their subjects in order for them to be good citizens: don’t question policies, don’t challenge laws — accept the top-down social order.
Equality requires the very opposite of unconsciousness. It demands that we pay attention to our environment and to one another. It asks of us to recognize specific groups to ensure their rights are not violated, while not losing sight of our common humanity. It also requires us to be alert to conflicting sensibilities, for example when one group’s right to observe its traditions impacts another group’s right to freedom of choice.
In a state that categorizes as relentlessly as Israel does — a by-product of its cobbled-together society, the interference of religion in state and legal affairs and the effects of colonization and occupation all rolled into one — it can be difficult to find the common humanity underneath it all. This is especially true in a country that has become so accustomed to ethnic and religious separation.
A status quo of inequality
Compassion, that other pillar of equality, grows out of consciousness. As Israeli academic Eva Illouz has noted, “[c]ompassion reserved only for members of my group is not compassion, but self-preservation.” Compassion is critical in order to be able to relate to others as fellow human beings rather than members of this group or that, and to transcend the divisions that others place between us.
Lastly, and most importantly, are the occupation and the siege on Gaza, by far the biggest obstacles to equality in this land. The discrimination engendered by Israel’s policies in the West Bank and vis-à-vis Gaza is an essay on its own, but it must be remembered that the same government which rejected the equality clause for its own citizens also maintains an entire parallel legal system inside which the inequality of Palestinians under occupation is tightly sealed.
None of this is to say that introducing an equality clause into Israeli law would be an automatic harbinger of better times ahead. It wouldn’t erase the institutionalized racism caused by decades of occupation and separation, nor would it overturn the post-colonial “between the lines” discrimination against Mizrahim, which though not set down in law is no less deeply rooted.
But formalizing equality in the law would at the very least present an obstacle to the Right’s seeming ability to operate unhindered in Israeli government and society, no matter how ruinous to others (and, in the long run, themselves) their policies may be. In these days of entrapping human rights activists and blacklisting “traitors,” and amid the increasing demands for adherence to a narrow ideal of state and ethnic loyalty, the concept of equality has become as radical as it gets — and a threat to everything the governing regime stands for.