Israel’s president: Nation-state law is ‘bad for Israel and bad for the Jews’

Reuven Rivlin says controversial legislation is part of a global trend of deepening polarization, silencing of dissent

President Reuven Rivlin visits students at the Religious school "Noam Eliyahu" in the southern Israeli city of Netivot, on the first day of school on September 2, 2018. (Mark Neyman/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin visits students at the Religious school "Noam Eliyahu" in the southern Israeli city of Netivot, on the first day of school on September 2, 2018. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday decried the recently passed so-called Jewish nation-state law as “bad for the State of Israel and bad for the Jews” and described the controversial legislation as part of a global pivot toward the silencing of dissent.

“I think that the nation-state law in its current version is bad for the State of Israel and bad for the Jews,” said Rivlin at a book launch event.

He lambasted the law — which enshrines Israel’s status as a Jewish state in its semi-constitutional Basic Laws — as part of a trend of deepening polarization in both Israeli society and the world.

“This law is part of a broader trend, a global one perhaps, that seeks to silence the debate,” said Rivlin, a former member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud party. “[It] strives for a reality in which there are two options: Either you are with me, or you are against me. Either you are with me, or you are a traitor, an enemy. [This holds] whether you are a leftist, or whether you are the president.”

Though the presidency is mostly a ceremonial role, Rivlin has not refrained from issuing withering criticism of the nation-state law passed by the Knesset in July, which critics have argued poses a threat to the rights of Israel’s minority communities.

On Monday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit countered that claim, saying the law does not violate minority rights because it does not override Israel’s previous semi-constitutional Basic Laws that guarantee them equality.

Speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, Mandelblit said that the law “does not harm their rights, because it is on an equal (legal) footing to their basic constitutional rights.”

Multiple petitions against the law have already been filed with the High Court of Justice by Druze, Arab and Bedouin leaders, rights groups, academics, and the Meretz and Joint List political parties. Several more petitions are currently being drafted.

Petitioners argued that the law contravenes the basis of Israel’s legal system as well as its Declaration of Independence by enshrining inequality among its citizens.

But Mandelblit said it did not override previously granted rights. “The new Basic Law is on the same normative level as previous Basic Laws,” he said, referring to the quasi-constitutional legislation.

This lines up with the argument of the Netanyahu government, which says the new law merely enshrines the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are already anchored in existing legislation.

The most recent petition filed last month by a group of 24 Druze citizens led by Daliyat al-Karmel Mayor Rafik Halabi appealed to the court to abolish the controversial legislation, saying it “creates race-based discrimination, excluding 20 percent of the nation’s citizenry and creating castes among Israeli citizens.”

Protesters wave Israeli and Druze flags at a demonstration against the nation-state law, in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on August 4, 2018. (Luke Tress / Times of Israel staff)

The nation-state law passed by the Knesset in July 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.” It also defines Arabic as a language with a “special” status, effectively downgrading it from its de facto status as Israel’s second official language, though it cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.” Read the full text of the law here.

Its passage into the law books has elicited a hail of criticism by Israelis, Jewish leaders, and the international community.

It has prompted particular outrage from Israel’s Druze minority, whose members — many of which serve in the Israeli army — say the law’s provisions render them second-class citizens.

Earlier this month, 30,000 Israeli Arabs and Jews demonstrated against the legislation in Tel Aviv. An earlier, similar rally of the Druze community drew around 50,000 people.

Netanyahu has said a government team will review ways to strengthen the state’s ties to minorities, but has stressed he opposes altering the controversial legislation.

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