Ministers debate softened version of ‘Jewish state bill’

Revised legislation proposed by Likud lawmaker Benny Begin still calls Israel national Jewish homeland but emphasizes its democracy

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

File: Likud MK Benny Begin during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Likud MK Benny Begin during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Eight months after the previous Netanyahu government dissolved, in part due to controversy surrounding the “Jewish state bill,” Likud MK Benny Begin on Sunday submitted an amended version of the legislation for debate in a ministerial committee.

Begin’s draft, which is based on a proposal by former Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, strikes a more moderate tone than the original version, which sought to enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state in a basic law, titled “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” with constitutional force.

In addition to officially classifying Israel as the Jewish nation-state, the original bill would have ensured national self-determination and individual rights for Jews, but only individual rights for non-Jewish Israeli citizens.

While similar in spirit to its predecessor, Begin’s version, be debated Sunday in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, presents a diluted version of the legislation’s more controversial reforms and instead focuses on Israel’s democratic nature.

It states 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 Law, giving them constitutional backing.

Left wing activist holding placards and flags as they protest against the "Jewish state" bill near the Prime Minister residence in Jerusalem on November 29, 2014. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Activists hold placards and flags as they protest against the ‘Jewish state’ bill near the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, November 29, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The previous version of the bill, strongly backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, faced fierce criticism from opposition lawmakers and others, who claimed the legislation gave preeminence to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state above its democratic nature, and would effectively make non-Jewish Israelis second-class citizens.

Critics also say the Jewish state law would give way to anti-democratic legislation and discriminatory policies.

Prominent US Jewish groups, President Reuven Rivlin and Rivlin’s predecessor Shimon Peres were among those who voiced concern that the previous incarnation of the Jewish state bill would erode Israeli democracy.

Netanyahu’s staunch support for the bill was one of the reasons for his previous government falling apart in November of last year, prompting March’s elections. Then-ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid strongly opposed the bill and threatened to bolt the coalition over the issue.

Netanyahu rebuffed the criticisms both at home and abroad and said that giving Israel’s Jewishness a constitutional underpinning was increasingly necessary given attempts to “delegitimize” the state.

“The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said at the time. “It has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state.”

After his reelection in March, Netanyahu vowed that his new government would pass a version of the bill, and his coalition agreement stipulates the passing of the bill.

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