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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Speech by Israel's President Ruvi Rivlin to conference on minorities in Israel

President Ruvi Rivlin "We must ask ourselves seriously, what is the point of the proposed law – Israel: The National State of the Jewish People? Does promoting this law, not in fact, question the success of the Zionist enterprise in which we are fortunate to live?"

President Reuven Rivlin, this evening (Tuesday, 25 November 2014) addressed the annual gathering of the State Prosecution, in Eilat.  
Honored friends, at the height of the tensions between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and amidst a wave of murderous terrorism, you have bravely chosen to dedicate this year’s conference to the issue of the relationship between minorities and the majority in our land.

Moreover, the headline of the conference, ‘To be a minority in our country’, alludes strongly to the idea, (as stated in the national anthem), ‘To be a free people in our land’, juxtaposed with ‘to be of a minority in our land.’ The title of the conference, demands of us to take the bull by the horns and not to avoid the question – is there really a contradiction?  Does being a part of a minority in the State of Israel, mean that one is not a free citizen of the state? 

Firstly, allow me to offer a critique of the conference’s title.  Not because I think the question posed is inappropriate, but because for the simple reason that the Arab community of Israel, is not a minority, at least not in the conventional sense.  In the same way as the Ultra-Orthodox community is not a minority. When close to quarter of the children in first grade are Arab, and close to a fifth are Ultra-Orthodox, the usage of the term ‘minority’ in relation to these communities is false and flawed.

Indeed this level of preciseness is not merely a matter of linguistics, nor of semantics, but strikes at the core of the matter.  Because, when we raise the issue of the relationship between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities, we must understand that we are seeking to clarify the matrix of the relationship between the State of Israel, and over one-fifth of its citizens.  Citizens who are part and parcel of this country, and for whom this land is their homeland.  Citizens for whom the discussion about their rights and obligations, does not only address their equality as individuals in the State of Israel, but as a population with a collective and cohesive cultural and religious identity.


The severe discrimination of the Arab community as far as resources (in education, infrastructure, building and development,) is inconsistent with the democratic nature of the state, as it is inconsistent with the Jewish nature of the state.


And now, we return to the question with which we opened.  That being, is there a contradiction between the vision of Jewish independence and sovereignty in the State of Israel, and the freedoms of non-Jewish groups within it?

It occurs to me that this question is nothing but another way of asking; can the Jewish State, be a democratic state?  Against a background of a range of efforts to enact a ‘national law’, attempting to set in law the Jewish character of the Jewish State, it seems that this question has become more relevant than ever.

Friends, the Declaration of Independence – accepted as a basic charter, and meriting of declarative constitutional status by a Supreme Court ruling – emphatically states the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel.

The formulators of the Declaration of Independence, with much wisdom, insisted that, the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not feel as the Jews had felt in exile.

Therefore, the declaration not only determines the complete equality of social rights for all its citizens, but religious, language, educational and cultural rights.  The founding fathers of the State of Israel, envisioned a state whose Jewish nature and democratic nature, were as one.

Moreover, ‘social and political equality’ was for them in keeping with the vision of the Prophets of Israel.  For them, it was an obvious outcome of the Jewish vision rooted in the values of freedom, peace and justice.

In the seventh decade of our independence, Jewish citizens of the state enjoy a strong and wonderful national home.  We must always remember what has for our young men and women, already become taken for granted.  Citizens of Israel speak Hebrew, and are creating a rich and diverse in their own language.  Israel’s holidays are celebrated publically.  The Israeli public education provides a rich, Jewish and nationalist education.  The flag and national anthem of Israel are seen and heard at sports competitions across the world.  The symbol of the state, the Jewish Menorah is emblazoned on the pages of the Israeli passport, with which Israeli citizens can enter 144 countries without a visa.  The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people, ‘a free people in our land’.

A hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together – without separating them

A small, abhorred minority, undermine this fact, both from within our own and from outside, and so, we must ask ourselves seriously, what is the point of the proposed law – Israel: The National State of the Jewish People.

Does the promotion of this law, not in fact, question the success of the Zionist enterprise in which we are fortunate to live?

Does this proposal, not in fact encourage us to seek contradiction between the Jewish and democratic characters of the state?

Does this bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us?  Into the very hands of those who wish to show, that even within us, there are those who see contradiction between our being a free people in our land, and the freedoms of the non-Jewish communities amongst us?

Friends, I remember like yesterday, the unparalleled pride we felt, my friends and I, on November 10th, 1975, when we saw the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who of course later became President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, when from the podium at the United Nations, he tore up the resolution equating Zionism with racism.  Herzog ripped up an improper and distorted decision, which sought to attribute to the Zionist enterprise the very injustices which Zionism itself had righted.

And yet, even then, as Chaim Herzog was speaking out against those who dared to question the moral basis for our right to self-determination, the leaders of Israel did not see fit to respond to the authors of the shameful UN resolution with attempts to pass laws regarding the superiority of the Jewish nature of the state.  The thought did not even cross their minds, specifically, because Israel’s being the national home of the Jewish people was self-evident.

With a heavy heart, while still Speaker in the Knesset, I read the opinion of the Knesset's legal advisor, regarding the original proposal of the Basic Law of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People.

“This proposal seeks to establish a new and different hierarchy, between the State of Israel being the national state of the Jewish People, and between being a democratic state.”  He continued, “No longer would there be a horizontal balance between the two parts, but instead a disconnect between the two, and the creation of a vertical balance, so that following the acceptance of this proposal, at the top of the constitutional hierarchy would be placed the principle of the State of Israel as a the nation state of the Jewish People, and only beneath it on the constitutional hierarchy would be placed the principle of a democratic state.”

Ladies and gentlemen, such a hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together – without separating them.

Judaism and democracy, democracy and Judaism, said as one utterance, are combined, and continue to be so.  These are not merely words.  This is the beating heart of the State of Israel.  A state established on two solid foundations; nationhood on the one hand, and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down.

Even if another law would eventually pass through the current Knesset, I am afraid that the atmosphere which led to the formation and proposal of this law will not quickly pass through either the Knesset of the Israeli public.

When considering the possibility of changing the constitutional foundations of the State of Israel, it would be fitting to hold a full and comprehensive referendum, to consider the ramifications.  Such a deliberation must be undertaken with the necessary level of seriousness, and with long term considerations.

We must understand the deep connection between the Jewish and democratic components is not artificial. Those who see the proposal of a Basic Law which cements Israel as a Jewish state, to be a counterweight to the Basic Law on 'Human Dignity and Liberty' are simply mistaken.

Moreover, one who thinks that the Basic Law on 'Human Dignity and Liberty' in some way contradicts the Jewishness of the state, not only does not understand what a democratic state is, but fails to understand what a Jewish state is.

Indeed, I ask you, is there a more 'Jewish law' than the Basic Law on 'Human Dignity and Liberty'?

In each and every legal text, this is the law that states most clearly the greatest assertion that the Jewish perspective brought to the world; 'Beloved is man, for he is made in God's image'.  And so I fear that the original text of the law, whilst trying to avoid a conflict between Judaism and democracy, ended up stuck in a conflict a between the Jewish State and Judaism.

Every law which weakens the greatest of Jewish laws - that of human dignity - not only weakens the Jewish character of the State of Israel, but at the end of the day, will also weaken our national home.

I call on all Members of Knesset, on all citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews.  Our combined efforts must be invested not in drawing differences between Judaism and democracy, but in the mutual development and empowerment to be found where they meet.

Friends. Amongst those who promote this law in its hierarchical version, there are those who state that the aim of this law is to force the Supreme Court to preference in its rulings Jewish considerations over democratic ones.

It must be stated clearly, the relationship between the courts on one hand and the legislature on the other, has yet to reach a desired balance.  For twenty years, the Supreme Court and the Knesset have been on a chronic collision course, whereby judicial activism has sought to cause the Knesset's activities to spill over into the realm of the courts.

I supported in the past, and I continue to support the vital need for a 'Basic Law on Legislation.'  A law, that even without a constitution, will at least codify the rules of the game between the different authorities.  A law which, for the first time, will regulate the status of the Basic Laws, and legislate for a judicial review.  A law which will allow for a limited period, the renewal of laws which did not pass such a judicial review, with a special majority of 65 MKs.

I thought then as I do now, that the citizens of Israel are the sovereigns of the state, and thus, the Knesset as their representatives holds the last word.  Is there anyone in the Knesset that fears the Supreme Court would suddenly annul the 'Law of Return'?  Or that it would suddenly find legal issue with the settlement of Jews in the Galilee or the Negev?  If so, they should support and respect a Basic Law on legislation.

Passing such a law would not require harming the Jewish or democratic essence of the State of Israel, by showing preference to one component over the other.  Make no mistake – a sovereign and independent Knesset in no way makes for a more Jewish and less democratic Israel. 

In any event, the issues with which we begun have brought into focus – that our ambition to live as a free people in our land, in our national home, requires the empowerment and reinforcement of the strong, democratic foundations upon which the State of Israel was established.

The strengthening of these democratic foundations will of course not be realized by handing over power of attorney to the Supreme Court, nor by the weakening of the Knesset, the representative of sovereignty.

Furthermore, the strengthening of the Knesset not only safeguards the freedom for which we waited generation upon generation, but distinctly preserves the magnificent Jewish heritage, in whose name we established the State of Israel.

And so, my friends, what does it mean to be a free, non-Jewish, citizen in our land?

If we are dealing with the freedom of the Arab public, and their equal rights in the State of Israel, then we must address, and correct the ongoing discrimination which they endure.

And when we are dealing with Judaism and democracy, we must state clearly.  The severe discrimination of the Arab community as far as resources (in education, infrastructure, building and development,) is inconsistent with the democratic nature of the state, as it is inconsistent with the Jewish nature of the state.

And yet, even if we succeed to narrow these inequalities, and to eradicate this discrimination from within us – we will yet to have realized the vision, and we will yet to have fulfilled the promises of the Declaration of Independence, if we still seek to cement into law the Jewish nature of the state, in a way that places it above the democratic nature of the state.


Specifically, during these days, when brutal and murderous terrorism seeks to drive us apart, we must reiterate to ourselves, (here, in the Knesset, in schools, in academia and in the halls of Torah study,) that Jewish is democratic and democracy is Jewish.  Only thus can we know that this external, brutal terrorism, will not only not break us physically, but neither will it break our spirit.

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