Israel has passed 'a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel' – according to its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
He was speaking after the Knesset, Israel's parliament, narrowly passed a contentious new 'Nation State Law' which declares that Jews alone have 'the right of self-determination' in the country. International reaction has been negative, with some even labelling it 'apartheid'.
From a secular perspective, the left-leaning Guardian newspaper in the UK described it as 'unashamedly majoritarian and illiberal' and says it will make Israeli Arabs second-class citizens. The right-wing Spectator observed that 'the law arguably shuts down the opportunity for Arab Israelis to achieve, for example, an autonomous Arab region within Israel' akin to the Catalan region in Spain. The Spectator article went on: 'You don't need to be a...leftist to object to Benjamin Netanyahu's cynicism in pushing the law, to cringe at its wording, or to wonder if Israel has a kink for being denounced and isolated.' It suggested the law's real raison d'être was to 'to win Netanyahu another majority'. In Israel itself, the nation's oldest newspaper, Haaretz, noted that while the measure was 'largely symbolic' it could be used in the future to justify controversial government decisions about new settlements. If you want to read the law in its entirely it can be found online here.
But what, as Christians, should we make of it all? Any follower of Jesus Christ who attempts to think or comment on modern Israel should first and foremost remember that even the label 'Christian' carries massively negative connotations for many Jewish people: it can bring to mind historical associations such as the Crusades and the Holocaust. We must tread with great love and caution. The second thing we have to keep in mind is that it is all too easy to over-simplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no doubt that both peoples have suffered grievous injustices. We cannot simply say one side is 'right' and the other 'wrong' – or anything close to that. There are lots of rights, and lots of wrongs – and most importantly, sorrow far beyond the understanding of most of us.
Furthermore, as Christians we should be aware that there is a diversity of theological views about the State of Israel. For many – especially some American evangelicals – today's Israel is a clear fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Thus megachurch pastor John Hagee, founder of the American group Christians United for Israel, has said: 'The Bible is a very pro-Israel book. If a Christian admits "I believe the Bible," I can make him a pro-Israel supporter or they will have to denounce their faith.' But others disagree. The British church leader Stephen Sizer, for example, disputes the idea that the 'promised land was given by God to Jewish people as an everlasting inheritance' and has written extensively on the subject, including his widely-read 'Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions'.
So as Christians we approach the whole subject of Israel with care. But that doesn't mean we can't form opinions on the Nation State Law. And from a Christian perspective it seems to me that in a region where there is such pain, the law is needlessly provocative. Just listen to the law's sponsor, Avi Dichter, who turned to Arab parliamentarians before voting and told them: 'We were here before you, and we will be here after you.' That helps no one. And while much of the law is largely symbolic, the Middle East is an area where signs matter rather a lot. Yes, the downgrading of the status of the Arabic language in the legislation may not have much actual practical, visible impact. But, symbolically, it says rather a lot: in fact, there's no doubt Israel's 21 per cent Arab minority feel it to be a slap in the face.
All this is a tragedy for Israel. Whatever its flaws, it has been – and is – far more democratic than much of the rest of the Middle East, and we should not forget that. Some (though by no means all) opposition to Israel as a state may well contain elements of antisemitism. So why provide ammunition to those who dislike the country to begin with?
In 2006, patriarchs and bishops from various historic Middle Eastern Christian denominations signed a declaration in Jerusalem denouncing 'racial exclusivity' and pointing to 'the gospel of universal love, redemption and reconciliation taught by Jesus Christ'. They added: 'We call upon Christians...on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism.' Their words ring true again today.
It is not glib but profoundly true to say that the answer to this problem is neither laws nor wars, but the gospel of Christ, in whom there is 'neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female' (Galatians 3:28). Quietly, but effectively, like yeast transforming bread, that gospel continues to break down barriers among Israelis and Palestinians today through groups such as Musalaha. There is a greater law than the Nation State Law: it is Christ's law of love.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A