In rare rebuke, Rivlin urges MKs to amend ‘discriminatory’ Jewish state bill

Eliciting anger of Likud lawmakers, president says controversial legislation ‘could harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel'”

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

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

In an unusual public critique of proposed legislation, President Reuven Rivlin sent a letter Tuesday morning to Knesset members urging them to amend a controversial bill aimed at enshrining Israel’s Jewish character in law, saying that the measure “could harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel.”

The controversial bill, long in the works, would for the first time in Israeli history enshrine the country as “the national home of the Jewish people,” establish the Jewish People’s “unique” right to self-determination within the State of Israel, and determine a series of constitutional measures defining the Jewish nature of the country.

Rivlin’s criticism focused on a clause in the bill that declares, “the State may allow a community, including followers of a single religion or members of a single nationality, to establish a separate communal settlement.”

According to the president, that clause “could do harm to the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel.”

In his letter to lawmakers, which he also sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vigorous backer of the bill, Rivlin said that the inclusion of such a provision would disrupt Israel’s “delicate constitutional principles” and upend past hard-fought legislation and precedent-setting court rulings aimed at preventing discrimination against minorities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Knesset on the ‘Jewish state’ bill, November 26, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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.

Rivlin cited the”Admission Committees Law” passed in 2011, when he served as Knesset speaker, which allows communities to turn down new members who would could harm the “social and cultural fabric of the community” but includes strict prohibitions for rejecting candidates based on “race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, personal status, age, parenthood, sexual orientation, country of origin, or political affiliation.”

He said that the Jewish state bill would permit discrimination based on those factors.

“Are we, in the name of the Zionist vision, willing to lend a hand to the discrimination and exclusion of a man or a woman based their background?” the president asked. He said that the law would “allow virtually every community, without any limitation or balance, to establish a community without Mizrahim [Middle Eastern Jews], without ultra-Orthodox, without Druze, without LGBT members.”

Rivlin added, “I am concerned that the broad manner in which this article was formulated, without balances, is liable to harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel, and can even be used as a weapon by our enemies.”

Illustrative photo of a construction site in Tekoa, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, on September 7, 2014 (Flash90)

Concluding the letter, he asked MKs “to reexamine the implications and implications of the proposed wording.”

The president’s criticism mirrored similar concerns voiced to ministers by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit but rejected by the Likud party.

Shortly after Rivlin’s letter was released to the press, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon published a legal opinion 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.”

Rivlin has expressed misgivings about the bill in the past, but Tuesday’s letter represents a significant expansion of his efforts to influence its outcome.

The 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 declare that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and make explicit the connection between Diaspora Jewry and the state. It also fixes the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance and Jewish holidays in the Basic Law.

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.”

Responding to Rivlin’s letter, Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay wrote on Twitter that he supported the president, who he said was “statesmanlike, honest and didn’t forget the values upon which the state was established.”

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, November 14, 2017. (Flash90)

Dichter, the bill’s original sponsor, said, “The president’s claim that the law calls for discrimination against minorities is incorrect.”

Dichter added, “The proposal that I initiated states the obvious, but even the obvious needs to be stated: The majority also have rights in Israel, even the Jews.”

Other Likud lawmakers hit back at Rivlin both for his censure of the bill and for what they described as an inappropriate intervention in the legislative process.

“It is very unfortunate that the president’s letter paints this law in the wrong light,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio. “I understand his concern, but this law does not harm equality. ”

Calling the letter “a very, very unusual step,” Erdan said “It is is his right to express a position, but the members of the Knesset are the ones elected.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar was less genteel.

“Unfortunately, President Rivlin has lost it,” he said in a statement. “His efforts to connect to the general public in the State of Israel has made him forget his DNA and the principles on which he was educated. It pains me that time and time again the president chooses to attack the basic principles of the right-wing government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ”

A joint session of the Knesset House Committee and Law, Constitution and Justice Committee was set to meet Tuesday morning for debate on the bill in preparation for its final plenary votes.

While disagreements between coalition partners remain over the final wording of the proposal, the bill is expected to face its final plenary votes next Monday.

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