Making no mention of the values of equality and democracy, Israel has passed into law a highly controversial bill that serves to define the nature of the state of Israel, with critics slamming it as the “nail in the coffin” of Israeli democracy.
The nation-state bill passed in its second and third readings following an hours-long debate in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. The law establishes Israel as the historic home of the Jewish people with a “united” Jerusalem as its capital and declares that the Jewish people “have an exclusive right to national self-determination” in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had advocated for the nation-state bill, hailed its passage and called it a “defining moment” in Israel’s history.
“We engraved in the stone of law our language, our anthem, and our flag. We have enshrined the fact that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Long live the State of Israel!”
Though the law is fraught with controversy and highly symbolic, much of it has little practical impact. For example, section 2 establishes the name of the country as Israel and describes its flag in detail, while section 8 sets the Jewish calendar as the official state calendar.
But the law fails to mention either equality or minority rights – both of which were integral parts of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, which explicitly states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
The omission has baffled many, including Amir Fuchs, who heads the Defending Democratic Values program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“There is no country in the world that has not specifically enumerated the right of equality in its constitution – therefore, it is difficult to understand why the authors of this bill insist not to include this important value,” said Fuchs.
“The right to equality is embedded in the values mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, which has been the definitive document framing the character of the State of Israel for the past 70 years.”
Israel is one of the only Western-style democracies in the world that does not have a constitution anchoring the rights of its citizens. Instead, Israel has Basic Laws, which serve as guiding principles for the state and the legal system. These laws, passed with an absolute majority of the 120 members of Knesset, are difficult to change or overturn.
Law downgrades status of Arabic
The law also downgrades the status of Arabic, until now an official language of the State of Israel, along with Hebrew. The law sets Arabic as a language with “special status.” Arabs make up approximately 20% of Israel’s population and about 36% of the population of Jerusalem.
Seizing on this point, Knesset member Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said in the Knesset in the days leading up to the final vote that famed Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have never signed off on the bill.
“I know this, because he said this: ‘The Arabic tongue and the Hebrew tongue will be equal in their rights and legal validity.’ This statement is not a political statement, it’s a practical statement,” Lapid said.
Knesset members Ahmad Tibi and Yousef Jabareen, both from the Joint Arab List party, assailed the bill’s passage in a joint statement.
“The law of nationalism is the last nail in the coffin of the so-called Israeli democracy, which has been dying in recent years because of its suffering from chronic racist diseases that have been afflicted with fascism and directed to Apartheid through the legislation of this law,” they said.
An earlier version of the bill would have allowed for segregated Jewish-only communities, but that clause sparked criticism from multiple directions. Some of Israel’s most prominent current and former politicians – including President Reuven Rivlin, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and the former chair of the prominent nonprofit the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, all expressed reservations about that clause, saying it would damage Israel’s international standing and would likely be struck down by the High Court.
An updated clause instead promotes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and commits the government to further its establishment.
Fears of a deepening divide
The bill’s critics also warned that it risked deepening the divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. A section that would have affirmed the right of all Jews to move to Israel was watered down to reaffirm the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, especially the more liberal Jewish community in the United States that has been increasingly critical of Netanyahu’s conservative government.
Ultra-Orthodox parties, critical to passing the bill into law, objected because the former phrasing could have been seen as recognizing non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, which those parties strongly oppose.
In an attempt to delay the bill’s final passage, opposition parties introduced a number of amendments – all of which were struck down – to extend debate about the nation-state bill. Some of those amendments expressed their clear disdain for the bill. For example, the left-wing Meretz party put forward an amendment to change the bill’s name from “Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish People” to “Israel – For Orthodox Jews Only.”
An amendment to add the language “The State of Israel is Jewish and Democratic” was also voted down by the coalition.