In the run-up to the April 9 elections in Israel, there are several issues that are drawing public attention. In addition to the traditional focus on security, potential peace plans, economic issues, settlements, political posturing and coalition building, there is the lingering issue of Israel’s status as the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” and how that impacts the state’s response to and consideration of the needs of, among others, its Palestinian Arab citizens — who account for 20 percent of the Israeli population. It is a deeply emotional and practical issue, whose resolution will likely determine just what kind of a nation Israel will be in the years to come.
In that battlefield of politics and ideas, two well-known representatives of the Israeli people faced off last week. The one, Rotem Sela, a 35-year-old actress and television host who stars in the very popular “The Baker & The Beauty” series on Israeli television and carried on Amazon Prime; the other, the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s history. In keeping with what passes for political dialogue today, the entire debate took place on social media.
“When the hell will someone in this government tell the public that Israel is a country of all its citizens,” Sela wrote on Instagram, responding to an interview in which Culture Minister Miri Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, warned of the consequences of Arab parties joining a leftwing coalition government.
In response, Netanyahu attempted to mansplain to Sela about Israel: “Dear Rotem: An important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state basic law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and of it alone.”
The prime minister’s response reignited debate on the merits of the much criticized Nation-State bill Netanyahu championed last year, and prompted sharp rebukes from “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Certainly, as far as Western notions of representative democracy are concerned, the idea that a state can permanently lock a minority of its citizens into second-class status — as Netanyahu’s Instagram comment seems to advocate — smacks of racism. But taken to its farthest extreme, the equality seemingly envisioned by Sela could potentially rob today’s Jewish state of its future Jewish identity.
Which is why the entire affair illustrates better than any flare-up in violence ever could — the past week also saw renewed rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza and the murder by a suspected Palestinian gunman of an Israeli soldier and a father of 12 at the entrance to the West Bank community of Ariel — that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be found. And in the process, Israel needs to figure out how it can function as a multinational state and retain its Jewish character, without sacrificing its deeply rooted democratic nature.
That the debate is taking place is good, but it probably shouldn’t play out on Instagram.