The Knesset plenum on Wednesday approved in a preliminary reading a bill that would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish nation-state in its Basic Laws, following a stormy session that saw three Arab lawmakers escorted out of the hall.
Forty-eight lawmakers voted in favor of the so-called Jewish state bill by Likud MK Avi Dichter, and 41 Knesset members opposed it.
Israel’s national identity is mentioned in a number of the country’s laws, but the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions and Israel’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the bill effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arab and other minority communities.
Ripping up the text of the bill, Joint (Arab) List MK Jamal Zahalka screamed “this is an apartheid law,” repeatedly shouted “apartheid, apartheid,” and called Dichter a “fascist and a racist” before he was removed from the plenum.
Joint (Arab) List MKs Abd al-Hakim Hajj Yahya and Hanin Zoabi were also booted from the plenum for disrupting the session.
Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, lamented the “disinformation” about the bill, denying the bill downgrades the status of Arabic in Israel as an official language. He also dismissed claims the law compromises the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, saying it merely anchors Israel’s Jewish status, while protecting the rights of other groups.
“I heard the yelling about an apartheid state. I think you are confused, in 1947 the UN decided to build a Jewish state here,” added Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who also endorsed the bill and was the author of one of its earlier versions in a previous Knesset.
The Yesh Atid and Zionist Union opposition parties voted against the bill. Both parties have said they would support the version of the bill formulated by Likud MK Benny Begin, which is simply a paragraph-long affirmation that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.
According to the language of Dichter’s 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.”
According to 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.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Dichter rejected the claim 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.”
The proposal also enshrines Israel’s state symbols and anthem, says the Hebrew calendar is the official one, affirms protection of all holy sites, and calls on courts to draw from Jewish law in cases where the existing Israeli legislation falls short.
The bill was brought to the plenum as a private bill, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s blessing.
According to a decision of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation , which on Sunday approved the draft, the bill will 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.
While the Kulanu coalition party may have voted in favor in the Ministerial Committee, party spokesman Omri Arush told The Times of Israel this week 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.