Left-wing lawmakers pay tribute to Arab MK who resigned over nation-state law

Meretz head invites Zouheir Bahloul to join her party as MKs say the move highlights the alienation of Israel's Arab minority; Likud lawmaker derides resignation as opportunism

Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul in the Knesset on December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Left-wing lawmakers on Saturday hailed Arab Israeli MK Zouheir Bahloul, who announced he would be resigning from the Knesset to protest the nation-state law and said the move highlighted the feeling of alienation among minority groups in the wake of the legislation.

Bahloul, of the Zionist Union, announced Saturday he would quit the Knesset to protest the recently passed law, which he said officially discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority.

Right-wing lawmakers were unfazed.

The nation-state bill — which for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — has sparked widespread criticism from Israel’s minorities, the international community, and Jewish groups abroad.

Both outgoing Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog and new leader Avi Gabbay hailed Bahloul as a man of principle.

“The voices of the minorities in Israel have to be heard,” said Herzog, while Gabbay promised that the party would have an Arab representative in future elections.

Fellow Zionist Union lawmaker Omer Barlev called Bahloul “a bastion of tolerance.”

Zionist Union MK Omer Barlev attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 13, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“His resignation and the great difficulty he felt in continuing are another proof that the terrible nation-state bill does not just hurt our democracy and our minorities, who it marginalizes, it also lays the groundwork for a society that is divided and pained,” Barlev said.

Meanwhile, Tamar Zandberg of the left-wing Meretz party said it showed that Arabs could not be properly represented in the center-left Zionist Union.

“The regretful resignation of Zouheir Bahloul is further evidence of the terrible divide created by this government between Jewish and Arab citizens,” she wrote. “I call on Bahloul to join us to fight together against the forces of darkness.”

Most of the reaction to his resignation came from the left; however, Likud lawmaker Miki Zohar dismissed his move as opportunism.

“His resignation was not surprising, when he saw his low chance of being reelected to the Knesset, he decided to make a stand about the nation-state law,” said Zohar.

Likud MK Miki Zohar attends a Knesset committee meeting on December 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Beyond the need to clarify the standing of our Druze brothers, this is one of the most important Basic Laws enacted since the founding of the state. It will be interesting to see if the next stage for Bahloul is leaving our amazing country,” Zohar said.

Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party said he would not be missed.

“Bahloul said his Palestinian identity was more important than his Israeli identity,” Bennett said. “The Knesset of Israel won’t cry over him, let him quit.”

On Sunday, Israeli Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the Jewish nation-state legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

Israeli ministers have moved to reassure the Druze community that they are valued in Israeli society, and have proposed a raft of measures to placate them.

The nation-state law, proponents say, puts Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the law effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arabs and other minority communities.

The law became one of the Basic Laws, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The law also declares that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance, and Jewish holidays. One clause of the bill downgrades the Arabic language from official to “special” standing, but also cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

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