Bennett pushing to soften proposal allowing Jewish-only communities

Jewish Home leader’s amendment would remove controversial clause from nation-state bill but instead call to strengthen Jewish presence in predominantly Arab Israeli areas

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting of his Jewish Home party at the Knesset on June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting of his Jewish Home party at the Knesset on June 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett has proposed an amendment to the controversial nation-state bill that would remove a clause seen as legally sanctioning Jewish-only communities in Israel, but would instead specifically call for strengthening the Jewish presence in predominantly Arab Israeli areas.

In a bid to pass the legislation by the end of the Knesset summer session in two weeks, Bennett has authored a softened version of the clause that would currently allow towns to exclude Arab citizens and has come under criticism in Israel.

Bennett’s proposal instructs for the state to instead “work towards developing Jewish settlement,” as first reported by the Israel Hayom newspaper Thursday. The language of the new amendment, however, calls for increasing the Jewish presence in areas where “there is a national need,” such as the Negev and the Galilee.

Coalition sources confirmed to The Times of Israel that the language was being considered.

View of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel, April 19, 2017. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Clause 7B of the Likud-sponsored legislation, which the government hopes to have approved by the end of the month, would allow the state to “authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.”

In the new version, the clause would instead read: “The state will work toward increasing the Jewish presence in the Negev and the Galilee and other areas where there is a national need, and to increase Jewish settlement there, including through benefits for Jewish migration [to those areas].”

A separate new clause says a “state institution, either independently or in partnership with the government, will work towards developing Jewish settlement in all of Israel.”

Politicians, legal advisers and others have warned that the current version of the the so-called Jewish State bill is discriminatory and could cast a dark shadow over Israel in the international arena.

President Reuven Rivlin addresses the Knesset at the opening of the winter session, October 12, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin raised an alarm over the bill, saying the legislation in its current form “could harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel, and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies.”

“Do we want to support the discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?” he wrote in his letter to lawmakers, which he also sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vigorous backer of the bill.

He said the bill could allow the establishment of towns that would, for example, exclude Jews of Middle Eastern origin, ultra-Orthodox Jews, or homosexuals.

Rivlin was followed by outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who said the bill would widen the gulf between US Jews — the majority of whom are non-Orthodox — and Israel as it also allows for the establishment of Israeli communities where residency is limited to those who follow a certain religious or cultural lifestyle.

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The State of Israel is a national home for the entire Jewish people and it is clear to me that there is no dispute between any party or Zionist movement,” he wrote. “While the nation-state law was originally intended to reinforce this principle, the most recent amendments to it are of great concern because they drive a wedge between Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.”

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon also published a legal opinion Tuesday saying he believed that the clause could cause the law to be overturned by the Supreme Court and therefore “urges MKs not to pass the law with it included.”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also said he is opposed to the law in its current form and his deputy, Raz Nizri, echoed concerns during a committee debate on Tuesday morning.

If passed, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which like a constitution underpin 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 and the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character.

Barricades erected at the entrance to the city of Bnei Brak to keep from entering on Shabbat, January 27, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Jewish nation-state bill was first put forward by Likud MK Avi Dichter in 2014, but, facing criticism from both opposition members and liberal-minded members of his own 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.

The latest version passed its first Knesset reading in May and was given a boost on Sunday by Netanyahu, who announced his intention to push the bill forward to become law before the current Knesset session ends on July 22.

Netanyahu told ministers that he wanted the bill passed in its current form, saying that it included compromises made to his coalition partners.

In addition to the clause on exclusive communities, the law would also set Hebrew as the official language of Israel. Arabic would be relegated from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to accessible state services.”

The law would also declare that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, make explicit the connection between Diaspora Jewry and the state and fix the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, as well as recognizing Independence Day, days of remembrance and Jewish holidays.

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