Thousands of protesters marched through Tel Aviv on Saturday night demonstrating against the controversial nation-state bill, which sanctions housing discrimination as part of a series of measures aimed at enshrining Israel’s Jewish character in law.
The protest, which was organized by a wide alliance of opposition parties, progressive Jewish groups, LGBT activists and left-wing NGOs, numbered some 2,500 people, and called on the government to scrap not only the clause on separate communities, but the entire proposal.
Politicians, legal advisers and others have warned that clause 7B in the so-called Jewish State bill is discriminatory and could cast a dark shadow over Israel in the international arena.
The clause in 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.”
Critics say the clause will legalize housing discrimination against a wide array of minorities and subgroups, including Arabs, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, gays, divorced women and others.
Speaking at the protest, Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh said the move was aimed at bolstering Likud’s right-wing base ahead of expected elections, and came at the expense of minority rights.
“This government is destroying peace and destroying democracy and equality for a little more political capital for the tyranny of Netanyahu,” Odeh said. “The racist laws of a government that fears the power of a majority and tramples the minority will not remove us.”
Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg told the crowd that “Netanyahu and his government have declared a direct war on the ideological foundation of Zionism on which the State of Israel was established.”
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on Friday came out in support of the clause sanctioning Jewish-only communities in Israel, saying he could live with segregated Arab housing “very well.”
“There are different security and social needs,” he said during the interview with Radio 103, adding that Israel already has numerous segregated neighborhoods for the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.
“This is a Jewish and democratic state, and if a community wants to separate for certain reasons, I can live with that very well,” he said.
President Reuven Rivlin, whose role is mainly symbolic, expressed concerns about the bill in a rare intervention in Israeli politics last week. In a letter to lawmakers, Rivlin warned 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.”
Outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon have also raised opposition to the text, which if passed could become part of the country’s basic laws that serve as a de facto constitution.
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 Jewish nation-state 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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 at the behest of his coalition partners. However on Thursday, reports in Hebrew-language media said Jewish Home chairman Naftali Benneett agreed to soften the text in a bid to pass the bill before the end of the legislative session.
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.
A special Knesset committee formed to advance the bill will on Sunday debate amendments proposed by opposition members with the aim of finalizing the proposal for its final plenary votes before the Knesset goes on summer recess on July 22.