In June 2011, Avi Dichter, then an opposition Knesset member with the centrist Kadima party, started collecting signatures for a proposal he had been working on to officially define Israel as a Jewish state and enshrine that definition in the country’s Basic Laws.
Reaching out to both hawkish Likud MKs and left-of-center Labor Party members, Dichter was able to garner 39 signatures, including from 20 of Kadima’s 28 MKs, and seemed on the way to securing the votes needed to turn the proposal into law. But before a Knesset vote could take place, then-Kadima chair Tzipi Livni pressured Dichter to shelve the bill over concerns it could upset the careful balance between the Israeli state’s Jewish and democratic characteristics.
Six years later, Dichter, now in Likud, says the bill — which has since been proposed in numerous permutations that have caused massive political fallout, even threatening to bring down the previous government — is now just weeks from becoming law.
“We’ve waited 2,000 years, but we’ll have to wait just another month or two,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview Monday in his Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman’s office. “This time, it’s going to pass,” he insisted, a day after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted unanimously in favor of throwing coalition support behind the proposal.
Judaism is already mentioned throughout the country’s laws, and religious authorities control many aspects of life, including marriage. But the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions like the Knesset, the courts and the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character. The nation state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values on equal footing with democratic values.
According to the language of the bill, the law is needed “to protect the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.”
Despite vehement opposition from Arab and liberal-leaning MKs, the “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” bill began squarely in the political center. While Dichter’s abortive 2011 bill was the first to be proposed by a Knesset member, it was not the first draft of the proposal.
The Institute for Zionist Strategies, a small Jerusalem think tank made up of professors and former security officials, produced the first draft of the bill. In 2009, IZS published a paper on the subject, and in the 2009 elections, the call for a nation-state bill made it into Kadima’s official platform.
After the election, IZS scholars met with Dichter, who adopted the initiative eagerly. From the summer of 2009 through 2010, Dichter and the IZS worked to craft a final version of the bill before finally presenting it in the Knesset in the summer of 2011.
In the years since it was first proposed, however, it has been taken on as an ideological mission of the Israeli right and been derided by the left as the embodiment of insensitive and even segregationist policies toward the county’s Arab minority.
After Dichter’s 2011 legislation was shot down by Livni, and following his subsequent ousting from the Knesset in the 2013 elections, several attempts were made to revive the proposal, but all fell short of garnering full coalition support.
In 2014, after hardline versions of the bill were presented by Dichter’s fellow Kadima-turned-Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin and MK Yariv Levin (Likud), along with Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked, who is now justice minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed his own draft. Arguing that the state lacked “adequate expression” of Israel’s “existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” the prime minister presented the cabinet with 14 principles that were to form the basis of the legislation.
Although Netanyahu’s draft gained cabinet support, then-ministers Livni and Yair Lapid strongly opposed the bill and threatened to bolt the coalition over the issue, preventing the proposal from advancing to the Knesset.
After his reelection in March 2015, Netanyahu vowed that his new government would pass a softened version of the bill. But the proposal was again shelved after Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who chairs the coalition party Kulanu, reportedly expressed his opposition to it.
‘Jewish and democratic’
According to Dichter, the new version passed on Sunday includes several changes aimed at “widening the basis of support” for the bill and removing any suggestion of prejudice.
The first draft, he points out while holding both the original and updated versions, identified Israel only as “the national home of the Jewish people.” Democracy, however, did not constitute part of the state’s identity, but merely, in the words used by the bill, “its form of government.”
Passing the law would ‘constitute an overwhelming response to all those who deny the deep connection between the Jewish people and their land,’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says
“Some legal experts said it made the Jewish element seem more important, so we wrote it together, on one line, so neither will have preference over the other,” Dichter said. The new text, he stressed, is based the language of the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which, for the first time in Israeli law, described Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”
“We have deliberated over every letter of this bill,” Dichter said, noting a months-long debate that resulted in changing the clause on the state calendar from “The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state” to “The Hebrew calendar is an official calendar of the State.” It is a phrase that is more comprehensive but still gives preference to the Jewish element, Dichter said.
And the changes seem to have worked: Kahlon dropped his original opposition and Kulanu ministers voted Sunday in favor of advancing the bill.
Netanyahu threw his own support behind the new bill on Monday, telling his Likud faction meeting that it “flies in the face of everyone who tries to deny our right to Israel.”
Passing the law would “constitute a decisive response to all those who deny the deep connection between the Jewish people and their land,” the prime minister said, adding that it would be brought to the Knesset within 60 days and he “expects all the Zionist parties to support it.”
According to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decision, the bill be formulated, within two months, as a government proposal, a move that will ease its passage through the Knesset. Dichter said he had been in regular contact with Netanyahu over the proposal and the prime minister had given his go-ahead for the bill to be presented now.
‘Declaration of war’
Responding to those who have said the proposal is discriminatory toward Israel’s Arab and other minority populations, Netanyahu said Monday that “there is absolutely no contradiction between the Jewish state bill and equal rights in Israel.”
‘Discrimination has received a legal stamp. The danger in this law in that it establishes two classes of citizen — Jewish and Arab, says Joint (Arab) List chair Ayman Odeh
Critics, however, say that the bill still gives preference to Jewish Israelis. Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh issued a harsh condemnation of the legislation, calling it a “declaration of war” on Israel’s Arab citizens. “Discrimination has received a legal stamp. The danger in this law in that it establishes two classes of citizen — Jewish and Arab.”
According to the language of the proposal, while every individual has the right “to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity,” the right to realize self-determination “is unique to the Jewish people.” In another controversial clause, Arabic is changed from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to language-accessible state services.” Notably, that clause was left out of Netanyahu’s 2014 version.
Dichter rejected the notion that his bill is discriminatory.
“It does not give preference to Jews over non-Jews. It gives preference to the Jewish state by preventing it from becoming something else,” he said emphatically. “It will not be Muslim and democratic, not Christian and democratic and not Hindu and Democratic. It is a Jewish and democratic state and everyone knows that.”
Slamming the criticism of the Hebrew language clause, Dichter said it was “bullshit” to suggest his bill downgraded Arabic.
With no legislation defining the status of either Arabic or Hebrew, Israeli law relies on a British Mandate ruling defining both as official languages of Mandatory Palestine. “So we said, let’s just go with the current reality,” Dichter said. “Hebrew is the language of the state but Arabic should have a special status above other languages. And that’s exactly what we wrote.”
Garnering support, again
Despite Dichter’s assertions, the bill still has a distance to go before its final approval.
While Kulanu may have voted in favor in the Ministerial Committee, party spokesman Omri Arush told The Times of Israel that its lawmakers would only support the final government proposal if it “met the standards they required.” According to Arush, who declined to elaborate on what those standards were, Kulanu did not give the proposal a blank check and would have input into the final version.
If Kulanu were to withdraw support, Dichter would need once again to turn to his left-leaning colleagues on the opposition benches in order to gain a majority in the Knesset. In case that happens, Dichter has also presented the proposal as a private members’ bill that can progress through the Knesset, albeit slower, independent of a government decision.
But opposition leader Isaac Herzog said at a press conference Monday that the current version of the bill “tramples on the delicate balance between Jewish and democratic.” Similarly, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said he supported the idea of a nation-state bill to define Israel as a Jewish state, but could not back the law in its current form.
Lapid and Herzog both said they supported a version of the law presented by Likud MK Benny Begin, which is just a short, paragraph-long declaration of the Jewish nature of the state.
Begin’s draft, which was presented in June 2015 and is based on a proposal by former Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, strikes a more moderate tone than the original version, stating that “Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and upholds equal rights for all its citizens.”
It also asserts Israel as a democracy and calls for the anthem, flag and national symbol to be a matter of law. According to the legislation, the text is based on the 1948 Declaration of Independence and aims to embed Israeli symbols into Israel’s Basic Laws, giving them constitutional backing.
“If the coalition is serious and it really wants to pass a nation-state bill with wide support, then we will support it,” Lapid said.
On the specific changes required for Dichter’s bill to receive the support of the party, Yesh Atid MK Yael German told The Times of Israel that it would need to enshrine, in writing, “equal rights for all citizens.”
Dichter, responding directly to Lapid’s and Herzog’s statements, said that Begin’s bill reminded him of an Arabic adage that says “there is no point telling people there are fish in the sea.”
“Just to declare Israel as a Jewish state and nothing more — in my eyes it doesn’t say anything at all,” Dichter said.
Asked if he would be willing to incorporate any further changes to the bill during the government and Knesset deliberations, Dichter said that while he was happy with the current version, he has always sought a text that can appeal to as many people as possible.
“For six years I have been changing and softening this bill where I think it appropriate in order to widen the base of support,” he said. “This not Avi Dichter’s bill, it’s the State of Israel’s. At the end of the process it will not be in my bookshelf, it will be in the book of laws of Israel.”