Basic Law "Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish Peo...

Basic Law "Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People" passes first reading, reiginites controversy

June 28, 2017

In early May, the Knesset approved a preliminary reading of MK Avi Dichter’s (Likud) Nation-State Bill with a vote of 48-41. Various versions of this bill have been presented to the Knesset since 2011, with this most recent version last discussed and put on hold at the end of 2015 following significant controversy. 

The stated purpose of the Nation State Bill is to “defend the character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the State of Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.” Basic Laws take precedence over other legislation, guide the legal system in the absence of a constitution and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.  

The proposed bill has generated controversy for stating that the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people, as well as for other provisions, which designate the current flag and emblem as the state’s flag and emblem, Hatikvah as the anthem, Jerusalem as the capital, and include the Law of Return.  While the bill states that “every citizen of Israel, regardless of their religion or nationality, has the right to actively preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity," it also includes controversial clauses recognizing Hebrew as the official language of the state and changing Arabic from an official language to "a language with special status;" a clause allowing “a community, including followers of a single religion or members of a single nationality, to establish a separate communal settlement” which some view as “authorizing communities for Jews only;” and a clause stating that the legal system should draw on Jewish law if existing legislation does not resolve legal questions.

Supporters say the bill is necessary because “Israel’s identification with Jewish nationhood is under attack from large parts of the international community, and from Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, post-Zionist Jews, anti-Jewish Jews," calling it "crucial," and criticism against it unnecessarily "hysterical." PM Netanyahu recently defined it as "one of the most important laws advanced by any Knesset."

Opponents claim it is a deviation from Herzl's path as well as from the promise of equal citizenship in Israel's Declaration of Independence, that it "remind[s] Arab citizens that they are second-class citizens" and constitutes "a declaration of war," in the words of MK Ayman Odeh (Chairman of the Arab Joint List), against Arab citizens.  Following the Knesset's vote, President Rivlin also voiced criticism of the bill stating that Israel "must not enact legislation that is detrimental to [the] essence and substance" of its Declaration of Independence.  Politicians and communal leaders from civil society organizations, including The Abraham Fund Initiatives and Sikkuy, came out particularly strongly against the clause that changes the status of Arabic stating it “opens the door to legalized discrimination against non-Jewish citizens of Israel.”

At the end of May, PM Netanyahu decided to remove this clause from the draft bill and stated that the bill will be further advanced in the summer session of the Knesset. In July, a new version of the bill defining Israel as a “Jewish state with a democratic regime” rather than a “Jewish and democratic state”  was approved by a special ministerial committee.  Given these new provisions, the state would be required to preserve the Jewish character of the state and protect sacred Jewish sites according to Jewish tradition.  The change spurred further criticism from opponents of the bill who argue that the nation-state bill threatens the “delicate and precise balance conceived by [Israel’s] founding fathers” and view the new version as “an effort to establish in a basic law that the country’s democratic foundation is subordinate to its Jewish one.”


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