The Information for prospective Australians that I had to master before I became a citizen declared ‘Australia is a secular country’. Except it’s a little more complicated than that. The very next line in the document observed that ‘Christmas and Easter are public holidays’. Add in that the parliament opens each day with a Christian prayer; that the Head of State is also the Head of the Anglican Church; that the flag is embellished with three (arguably four) Christian crosses, and it turns out that ‘secular’ Australia shows a lot more respect to one religion than to any other.
And, as a non-Christian, I’m fine with that. I am a proud Australian, and respect its religious character even while I do not share it. In fact, in this age of militant and intolerant secularism, I would wish for Australia’s Christian ethos to be more impactful than it currently is.
There are many other developed nations that make their religious or national identity clear, without being accused of disadvantaging or discriminating against adherents of other religions or bearers of other national identities.
In the UK, the national anthem is a religious hymn; senior bishops are automatically members of parliament and each school must hold a daily act of worship ‘of a Christian character’.
The opening of Ireland’s constitution leaves little doubt as to its religious leanings – ‘We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ.’ Norway’s constitution not only mandates that ‘The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State’ and that ‘The King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion’ but even requires that ‘the inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same’. Greece declares that ‘The prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ’.
Yet none of these countries is condemned for treating adherents of other religions or none as ‘second class’ or introducing an apartheid hierarchy. Latvia is not accused of racism because its constitution proclaims ‘the unwavering will of the Latvian nation to have its own State and its inalienable right of self-determination in order to guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and culture’.
For each of these countries, and dozens more, being the nation-state of a particular group whilst fully welcoming as citizens members of other groups is unremarkable. And let’s not overlook the numerous states that call themselves Islamic, apply Islamic law and do indeed deny rights to non-Muslims, whilst managing to escape any opprobrium.
But as usual, one particular country is treated differently. Listening to the cacophony of criticism accompanying Israel’s recently passed Basic Law (the nearest thing that Israel has to a constitution) entitled ‘Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People’, one would have thought that the new law bars non-Jews from living in Israel, or at least consigns them to some inferior status with diminished civil rights.
It does nothing of the sort.
The law declares that ‘The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination’. It goes further and states that ‘The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’. So there is the one single right that non-Jews are denied – the right to end the existence of the world’s sole Jewish state by making it into something else.
In fact the new law protects the status of minorities far more than the constitutions of other ‘liberal’ countries do. ‘Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals’ (unlike the situation in, say, Australia, whereby Jews and Muslims have to use annual leave in order to observe their holy days). ‘The Arabic language has a special status in the state’, which compares most favourably to the status of Russian in Latvia, or Basque in Spain, or Indigenous languages in Australia.
Another clause observes that ‘The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation’. Naturally, the BBC news reported this as support for ‘settlements’, given that viewers need no reminding that these are evil manifestations of Israel’s expansionism, yet ‘settlement’, in the singular, means something quite different.
Those familiar with the history of Zionism, the Jews’ national liberation movement, will recognise support for settlement of the land as one of its key values. Before it even dreamed of statehood, the Zionist movement sought to bring Jews back to the land itself, to get dirt under their fingernails, to drain the swamps and to make the desert bloom. And in this endeavour, as can be seen today, it has been miraculously successful.
Thus the law does no more than state the obvious, that Israel has taken over the role of the Zionist movement, and it is now the state itself that values and encourages Jewish settlement. As with each of the remaining clauses, this does not denigrate or degrade non-Jewish neighbourhoods or suggest that they are less deserving of state support.
So why the anger directed at Israel? Why the accusations? We are left with two explanations. The first is that the reporters and critics have not bothered to read the law that they castigate and have instinctively jumped on the ‘apartheid Israel’ bandwagon.
But the alternative is that the detractors know what the law says and yet do indeed believe that to insist that Israel remains the nation-state of the Jewish people is intrinsically racist. Because while countless countries can be officially Christian or Muslim; while all other ethnic groups are entitled to self-determination (and the Palestinians’ right to their own state is unquestionable), deep down, those criticising this law think that one nation on earth does not deserve the same. After seventy years, too many remain uncomfortable with the Jews returning to their land, taking control of their own destiny, and rejoining the family of nations. Too many still believe that Jews are not the same as others. And there’s a word for those who insist that Jews are different.