Reigniting old dispute, ministers okay new ‘Jewish State’ bill
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Coalition MK: Big step for Jewish identity; opposition MK: Erosion of our democracy

Reigniting old dispute, ministers okay new ‘Jewish State’ bill

Legislation seeks to define Israel as nation-state for Jews, downgrades Arabic from official language to ‘special status’

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

A Jewish-Israeli raising the Israeli flag near the Old City of Jerusalem, which has seen an influx of Jewish residents in predominantly Arab areas. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
A Jewish-Israeli raising the Israeli flag near the Old City of Jerusalem, which has seen an influx of Jewish residents in predominantly Arab areas. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Ministers gave their go-ahead Sunday to a controversial and long-debated proposal to officially define Israel as a Jewish nation-state.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted unanimously in favor of throwing coalition support behind Likud MK Avi Dichter’s Jewish State bill, which, for the first time in Israeli law, would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.” If passed in the Knesset, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which like a constitution guide Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

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 or the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing.

​”This is a small step for the Jewish State bill, which establishes that Israel is and will be a Jewish and democratic state, and it’s a big step toward defining our identity, not only in the eyes of the world but primarily for ourselves, Israelis. To be a free people in our land,” Dichter said in response to the decision.

Likud MK Avi Dichter leads a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Avi Dichter leads a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He said that the bill was needed to counter Palestinian efforts to deny Jewish rights to Israel. “Events of recent months prove that this is a battle for the Israel’s image and national identity. The Palestinians no longer hide their goal of erasing the Jewish people’s nation-state,” he wrote in defense of the legislation.

Critics, however, said that the bill is discriminatory to Israel’s Arab and other minority populations.

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 would be relegated from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to accessible state services.”

Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh issued a harsh condemnation of the legislation, calling the Ministerial Committee decision 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,” he wrote in a statement.

Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit, a contender for the leadership of his party, said that the bill was “reminiscent of dark periods” in history. “The Jewish State law is an effort to erode the only democracy in the Middle East,” he said.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint (Arab) List, speaks during a vote on a bill that would allow suspension of Knesset members, March 28, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint (Arab) List, speaks during a vote on a bill that would allow suspension of Knesset members, March 28, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The bill was first put forward by Dichter in 2014 but, facing criticism from both opposition members and liberal-minded members of his own Likud party, it was shelved soon after. Since then, a number of versions of the legislation have been drafted by right-wing lawmakers but none has made it through the Knesset to become law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even proposed his own version of the legislation, saying in 2015 that the state lacked “adequate expression” of Israel’s “existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people” in the country’s set of Basic Laws.

Critics of the various proposals have included then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein, President Reuven Rivlin, then-culture minister Limor Livnat, former defense minister Moshe Arens, former justice minister Dan Meridor (the last four are all Likud veterans), Jewish and Arab opposition parties, some coalition members, and many other Israelis, emphatically including conservative-minded ones.

The latest version appears to be a compromise between the various drafts put forward over the last three years, reaching out to liberals by including the phrase “Jewish and democratic” and omitting a previously included affirmation of the importance of settlement throughout Israel’s borders, but leaving in some contentious elements such as downgrading Arabic from an official language.

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