President warns law could be a 'weapon' for Israel's enemies

Likud said mulling retreat from measure allowing Jewish-only communities

Ruling party reportedly considering nixing controversial clause from nation-state bill after strident criticism from president, others

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with President Reuven Rivlin during the Israel Prize ceremony at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with President Reuven Rivlin during the Israel Prize ceremony at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem on May 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ruling Likud party is reportedly discussing removing a controversial clause in the nation-state bill that is seen as opening the door to the establishment of Jewish-only communities in Israel.

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

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.”

That portion of the text is seen as allowing towns to exclude Arab citizens, or even other Jewish communities, and has come under criticism in Israel.

According to a Tuesday Hadashot news report, Likud MKs were considering changing the text of clause to a sentence that instead refers to international support for Jewish settlement on land “under its control.”

Earlier on Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin raised 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.

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

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.

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 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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