Meretz petitions High Court to overturn ‘anti-equality’ nation-state law

Left-wing party’s chief, Tamar Zandberg, charges that coalition lawmakers ‘tossed aside our most fundamental ideals’

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg speaks to supporters after being elected as the new party head, March 22, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg speaks to supporters after being elected as the new party head, March 22, 2018. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The left-wing Meretz party petitioned the High Court of Justice on Tuesday morning against the Jewish nation-state law passed earlier this month by the Knesset.

Calling the law “an act of sabotage against Israeli law that replaced equality with racism,” Meretz chief MK Tamar Zandberg insisted the court must overturn the law.

In the appeal, the party argues that the law, a constitutional “basic law,” contradicts a previous basic law, the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty passed in 1992.

High Court rulings have found that the 1992 law’s guarantee of a right to “human dignity” for all amounts to a guarantee of equality, even though the term “equality” does not appear in any Israeli basic law.

The new law, Meretz argued on Tuesday, contradicts that promise of equality.

“We’ve left the High Court,” Zandberg tweeted after filing the petition. “Meretz has appealed against the nation-state law, a law that is an act of sabotage against Israeli law, that replaced equality with racism. There is no precedent in the world for such a constitutional anchoring of discrimination. In the name of a political deal, they tossed aside our most fundamental ideals.”

The “deal” refers to the belief among many observers, including on the right, that Netanyahu pushed for the passage of the nation-state law this month, before the Knesset went to recess on July 19, because the coalition is believed likely to disband and trigger new elections by the time the Knesset returns for the fall session in October. The law’s passage, many believe, is meant to shore up Likud’s right-wing credentials ahead of the expected vote.

Zandberg filed the petition together with MK Issawi Frej, the party’s only Arab lawmaker, and Eran Lev, an attorney.

The petition’s legal argument harks back to High Court rulings that found that certain principles, including equality, were fundamental to the nature of Israel’s democratic regime, and so existed even without being explicitly articulated in a basic law.

The new basic law, the party said, violates that underlying principle.

It is not clear if such an argument can win in court.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing Jewish Home party, a backer of the nation-state law, has noted that the High Court likely does not have the power to overturn a basic law, by definition, as basic laws make up the constitutional baseline against which judges can determine whether other laws may be struck down.

The petition singles out two articles for special censure: Article 4, which the appellants claim downgrades Arabic’s status from a de facto co-equal official language alongside Hebrew to a mere “special” language, and Article 7, which affirms the state’s commitment to “Jewish settlement,” an apparent commitment to the state’s favoring of one ethnic or religious group over others when developing the country’s population centers.

“The prime minister has decided to rank the citizens of Israel: Jewish are first-class, Druze are second-class, Arabs and LGBT are fourth-class,” Zandberg charged.

The reference to the LGBT community came because of another law passed earlier this month that grants surrogacy parenthood rights only to mothers, leaving out gay men who seek to have children. That law, which Netanyahu has insisted would be amended to include gay men in a future Knesset session, sparked gay rights protests around the country.

“This law violates the principle of equality on which the state was founded, and tramples all minorities, citizens with equal rights, who live here. The law doesn’t need to be amended and can’t be ‘softened,'” Zandberg insisted on Tuesday. “You don’t fix racism, you throw it out. This law must be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Frej said the petition wasn’t made “in the name of the Druze, the Arabs or the Jews, but in the name of all the citizens of the State of Israel who still want to believe in Israel’s democracy, who want to believe in the equality that the authors of the declaration of independence committed to granting all the citizens of the state, without regard to religion, race, gender or nationality.”

The High Court will decide “the character of Israel, whether as a state it seeks to ensure equality for its citizens according to the principles of the declaration of independence, or as a state that lionizes the discrimination set down in the nation-state law,” Frej added.

Meretz’s petition comes as Israel’s Druze community continues to object vehemently to the law.

Last week, Israeli Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets with Sheikh Muafak Tariff, spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (L) and other Druze leaders at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 27, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The nation-state law — 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.

The 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 country’s 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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