A special Knesset committee on Wednesday kicked off its first debate on the contested Jewish nation-state bill, in a heated meeting that saw ministers and coalition lawmakers vowing to “make history” and opposition members warning the proposal could tip Israel into “apartheid” or “fascist” territory.
The at-times-stormy meeting saw three opposition MKs — the Joint (Arab) List’s Ahmad Tibi and Osama Saadi and Meretz’s Ilan Gilon — removed for disruptions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was slated to attend, backed out minutes before it began due to security consultations.
From the coalition, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked defended the bill — approved in its preliminary reading on May 10 — which would for the first time enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in its constitutional Basic Laws.
Israel’s national identity is mentioned in a number of the country’s laws, but the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions and the state’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the bill effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arab and other minority communities.
Some 120 countries have their anthems, 136 have references to the flag, and 170 have a national language anchored in their respective constitutions, Shaked said. Moreover, she added, many countries detail their national values in their constitutional laws and some, mainly European countries, explicitly give the church official standing.
“Every ‘the’ is important in this law, every comma,” said Shaked, urging the committee to work diligently on the law as “it will remain with us forever.” She also urged dialogue with the opposition to together “make history.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said the bill was merely designed to rectify an “imbalance” in the country’s Basic Laws, which largely focus on its democratic character.
“This law, ladies and gentlemen, does not establish anything new,” he said.
He said “agreements” had been reached within the coalition on proposed revisions to the bill, though “there are issues that remain open.”
That comment set off protests by Zionist Union MK Revital Swid, who noted that though the committee was convening for the first time to debate the bill, its members did not have an updated proposal from the coalition and were left in the dark on what changes were being introduced since Likud MK Avi Dichter’s version received the Knesset’s initial approval in May.
Shaked agreed with Swid and said the coalition agreements should be made public to the panel as it begins its discussions, but did not elaborate on what those internal concessions were.
Kulanu MK Tali Ploskov said her coalition party objected to identifying Israel as “the Jewish nation-state,” rather than the “Jewish and democratic nation-state.”
Opening up the session, Likud MK Amir Ohana — the head of the special committee tasked with finalizing the bill — vowed that “human rights will be safeguarded for all” in the final version, as opposition lawmakers furiously argued the proposal would make Israel’s Arab, Druze, and Christian minorities second-class citizens.
“Those who claim this law is racist is like someone who claims Zionism is racism — no less,” he said.
Hitting back, opposition leader Isaac Herzog branded the bill “a classic example of fascistization.”
“You’re playing with fire,” he warned the coalition, saying the law could “rip the country to shreds.”
“The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, period… it’s obvious,” said Herzog, referring to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which defines it as such.
Meanwhile, the opposition’s Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni called it the “law that will bury the Declaration of Independence.”
“I asked to include the word ‘equality,’ and you rejected it,” she said, referring to attempts during the previous government, when Livni was justice minister, to advance various versions of the bill.
From the opposition Yesh Atid party, MK Yael German said the law would place Israel “on the verge of apartheid.”
“You are weak people,” added the leader of the Joint (Arab) List Ayman Odeh. “Only a country that isn’t normal acts this way.”
“No apartheid law will erase the fact that in this homeland there are two nations,” he added.
In May, the Yesh Atid and Zionist Union opposition parties voted against the bill. Both parties have said they would support the version of the bill formulated by Likud MK Benny Begin, which is simply a paragraph-long affirmation that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.
According to the language of Dichter’s bill, which forms the basis of the current discussions, the law is needed “to protect the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.”
According to the proposal, while every individual has the right “to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity,” the right to realize self-determination “is unique to the Jewish people.” In another controversial clause, Arabic is changed from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to language-accessible state services.”
Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, has lamented the “disinformation” about the bill, denying the bill downgrades the status of Arabic in Israel as an official language. He also dismissed claims the law compromises the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, saying it merely anchors Israel’s Jewish status while protecting the rights of other groups.
Another clause that has been the subject of scrutiny is one that appears to suggest the High Court of Justice favor Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one. The attorney general has opposed this clause, according to Hebrew reports this month.
Netanyahu has thrown his support behind the bill. However, while the prime minister had initially predicted the bill would pass its three readings and become law by the Knesset session’s end this week, the committee only began deliberations on Wednesday, pushing off the first reading for at least three more months when the Knesset reconvenes in late October.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.