Two draft bills seek to define Israel as Jewish state

Separate proposals submitted Tuesday promise to reignite debate over the country’s character

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Israel soldiers gather around a large Menorah standing outside the Knesset in 2001. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israel soldiers gather around a large Menorah standing outside the Knesset in 2001. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Two separate draft bills submitted Tuesday for Knesset consideration would seek to formally define Israel as a Jewish state.

One bill, jointly submitted by MK Yariv Levin (Likud) and MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), would enshrine as law the idea of the Land of Israel as the historical homeland of the Jewish people, not of another nation, and the State of Israel as the modern state where the Jewish people only can exercise national self-determination.

According to its authors, the bill seeks to retain the democratic nature of Israel and the rights of non-Jewish citizens, Haaretz reported on Wednesday.

The bill, unlike a controversial proposal put forth in 2011 by then-MK Avi Dichter, would retain Arabic as an official language of the state.

A second bill, submitted by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), seeks to use the words of the Israeli Declaration of Independence as the Basic Law, which would enshrine Israel’s Jewish character into a legality.

“The Declaration of Independence explicitly states that Israel is envisaged as a Jewish state that is also committed to equal rights,” the proposal stated. “The Declaration of Independence is a balanced, Jewish and democratic document based on the principles of justice and equality which are no less relevant today than they were at the time of its drafting.”

Israel has no constitution, but the country’s Basic Laws have been the given the standing of one.

Calderon, a secular professor of Talmud, noted that the term “Jewish state” refers to a country where Jewish people, culture and values are paramount, not a Jewish religious state, and said that given the lack of a constitution and the fact that the Declaration of Independence is routinely consulted by judges when making rulings, it makes sense to enshrine it into law.

Similar “Jewish identity bills” have been proposed in the past although none have passed, including the several versions of a contentious 2011 bill sponsored by Dichter, which sought to use Jewish religious law as a model of legislation, drop Arabic as an official language and restrict government funds for non-Jewish communities.

The new bill proposals are likely to reignite the debate on the Jewish identity of Israel and are expected to be strongly opposed by Arab MKs and others in the opposition.

“We don’t need laws that are designed to establish the hegemony of the majority, but need to protect the minority when racism rages. The Knesset has become a racist legislation machine,” MK Mohammad Barakeh (Hadash) said on Wednesday, according to Ynet News.

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