Vote on ‘Jewish state bill’ put off amid coalition wrangling
Lawmakers divided over correct balance between Israel’s ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ nature
Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.
A Knesset committee meeting scheduled for Wednesday to vote on a controversial bill that would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” in a new Basic Law was scrapped after coalition members failed to agree on the bill’s wording.
At issue is the balance to be struck between the state’s Jewish and democratic character.
Basic Laws have constitutional power and are difficult to change.
The aim had been for the committee to vote on a version of the proposal that could be brought before the Knesset for its first reading on Sunday. The chances of it going to the plenum before the end of the current parliamentary session now look slim.
The bill, slammed by critics as discriminatory toward Arabs and other minority populations, has raised the ire of coalition members Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu. Both parties object to what they see as an over-emphasis on the state’s Jewish character, to the detriment of its democratic one.
The United Torah Judaism party indicated that it, too, would vote against the bill because of its opposition, in principle, to Basic Laws.
Kulanu’s lead lawmaker on the issue, Roy Folkman, told Haaretz, “Throughout the whole process, we’ve said we are in favor of a Jewish state bill but that it has to strike a balance between Israel as the nation state of the Jewish People and as a democratic state, which also gives rights to those who are not Jewish.”
On Tuesday, the coalition circulated a new text for the bill that stated that all laws, including constitutional Basic Laws, would be interpreted on the sole basis of Israel being the state of the Jewish people.
It said, “The Land of Israel is the historical birthplace of the Jewish People, on which the State of Israel rose,” and that the right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel was “unique to the Jewish People.”
That section of the wording concluded by saying that all laws would be interpreted through the prism of those definitions.
The definition of Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” only appeared further down in the text.
The new version retained the provision that the state has the right to create Jewish-only communities and defended the right of existing communities to operate admissions committees that can deny requests for residence on religious or national grounds.
It defined Hebrew as the country’s sole national language, demoting Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.”
MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said, “The meeting that was supposed to cancel the Declaration of Independence [which defines the state as both Jewish and democratic] and change the character of the state, in the twilight days of this government, has been canceled.
“Those who in the darkness have tried to control all the institutions of democracy want to destroy democracy itself. They do not have the mandate.”
MK Dov Khenin of the Joint (Arab) List said, “The efforts to distract public opinion from the corruption cases against [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu are collapsing. We know that it’s not the end, yet, because racism was always the refuge of the corrupt. As a prime minister under suspicion, Netanyahu is particularly dangerous and that’s a further reason why his term of office should be brought to an immediate end.”
The bill was first put advanced 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 current bill passed its preliminary reading in May.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.