Knesset advances controversial ‘Jewish state’ bill in first reading

Amid concerns that the bill is discriminatory against minorities, reports say coalition members do not intend to bring bill for further votes

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, MK Avi Dichter, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, MK Avi Dichter, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The controversial, long-gestating ‘Jewish State bill’ that would enshrine the state’s Jewish character in the country’s constitutional Basic Laws passed its first reading in the Knesset early on Tuesday.

The vote passed with 64 lawmakers in favor and 50 against. It still needs to pass a second and third reading before it can become law, but there have been reports the coalition does not intend to bring it for further votes.

Under Likud MK Avi Dichter’s Jewish State bill, for the first time in Israeli law, would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.” If passed, 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.

The bill was approved in its preliminary reading last year May. Proponents wanted to pass it in the last Knesset session, but it was held up due to a dispute with the Kulanu party, a coalition member.

A controversial provision instructs the justice system to prefer Israel’s Jewish character to its democratic one in cases where the two are at odds.

Kulanu leaders had reportedly demanded that the clause be excised, and that the Jewish and democratic values of the state share equal footing.

The language of the bill was reportedly softened, to allow Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu to support the bill, Hebrew media reported.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a plenum session at the Knesset to approve changes in tax laws, May 10, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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

According to the language of the government-backed proposal, while every individual has the right “to preserve his or her 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.”

The current version of the controversial bill allows for the establishment of new communities solely for Jews. The attorney general’s office and the Knesset legal adviser have both said the clause is discriminatory and there have been reports that the coalition is in quiet agreement that the current version of the bill will likely be shelved after its first reading.

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.

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