What’s in Netanyahu’s ‘Jewish State’ bill?
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What’s in Netanyahu’s ‘Jewish State’ bill?

Prime minister’s legislation, up for vote this week, will seek to underline Israel’s Jewish character and highlight the country’s commitment to democracy

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

From left to right: Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at the weekly cabinet meeting in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zweigenberg/Pool/Flash90)
From left to right: Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein at the weekly cabinet meeting in Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zweigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

A final draft of a controversial bill that would define Israel as a Jewish state is set to be presented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a Knesset plenum vote by the end of this week, following the cabinet’s approval of two earlier versions of the contentious legislation on Sunday.

While the cabinet did not officially endorse Netanyahu’s version of the Jewish State bill — but rather two drafts presented by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), and MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) — the ministers agreed to back the pieces of legislation provided that the final version of the law will square with the prime minister’s requirements of the measure.

Elkin, Levin and Shaked, on their part, have committed to halting the advancement of their respective bills and supporting the prime minister’s revised formulation in the Knesset vote.

A draft of Netanyahu’s bill, published as an appendix to the earlier versions, lists 14 different principles, each consisting of several clauses regarding the proposed nature and character of the state. In its second principle, Netanyahu’s version says that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

Likud MK Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Likud MK Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum, February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In that, the prime minister’s bill echoes the versions presented by Elkin, Levin and Shaked, though there are some differences in the other phrasing it employs. First, Netanyahu’s version defines Israel, among other things, as “a democratic state, founded on the principles of liberty, justice and peace, in accordance with the vision of Israel’s prophets, which upholds the individual rights of all of its citizens according to the law.”

Levin and Shaked’s version, however, noted that the state would uphold “the individual rights of all of its citizens according to Basic Laws.”

Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, March 11, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, March 11, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Despite the fact that the above clause is an almost precise quote from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, both the prime minister’s version, as well as that of the three MKs, omit the word “equality,” though it is noticeably present in the same sentence as inscribed in the state’s founding document. Nevertheless, Netanyahu told the cabinet Sunday that the bill vouchsafes “equal individual rights” for all citizens.

The prime minister’s bill further asserts that “Jewish law will serve as an inspiration for the Knesset,” while the two other versions expand the clause, noting that Jewish law will guide both “legislators and judges.” The term “Jewish law” refers to the legal discourse practiced by Talmudic scholars and rabbis throughout the ages. When a particular judicial quandary cannot be derived directly from Jewish law, the prime minister’s draft continues, the Knesset may decide on the matter based on “the principals of liberty, justice, integrity and peace, in light of the heritage of Israel.” There, the wording is identical to the documents put out by Elkin and Levin and Shaked.

Another detail that differs between the various versions of the bill concerns Israel’s official language. In Elkin’s version, Arabic would be demoted from its current status as an official language of the state and instead be defined as being in a “special class” of its own. In Netanyahu’s draft, the issue of language, Arabic or otherwise, does not come up at all.

MK Zee'v Elkin (Likud). (photo credit: Flash 90)
Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin (photo credit: Flash90)

The prime minister’s amended bill goes on to assert the “national rights” of the Jewish people, such as the flag and anthem and right to immigrate. The legislation also determines that Israel will establish the Sabbath as a national day of rest, and states that the government will work to strengthen its connection with Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

Other clauses in the bill include a state pledge to protect and rescue Jews across the globe who are facing imminent danger or persecution, and a directive that would require Jewish schools to teach the history, culture and customs of the Jewish people.

The proposed law also vows to allow each and every citizen of Israel, “regardless of religion, race or nationality, to act to preserve their culture, legacy, language and identity.”

Finally, the bill mandates the protection of holy sites within Israel’s borders, and determines that the state must work to ensure believers access to such sites.

“There are those who want the democratic (nature) to take precedence over the Jewish, and there are those that want the Jewish (character) to take precedence over the democratic. And the principle of the law that we are proposing here today — both of these values are equal and we must consider them equally,” Netanyahu said Sunday ahead of the coalition vote, according to a statement from his office.

Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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