In Depth

Israel’s ‘nation state’ law: what it is and why critics are outraged

Newly passed Bill angers Arab minority by defining country as national homeland of the Jewish people

Israel’s parliament has today passed a controversial new law that redefines the country as the “nation state” of the Jewish people, sparking outrage among its Palestinian citizens.

The Bill, which passed by 62 votes to 55, cites the expansion of Jewish settlements as a priority of the government and establishes Hebrew as the only official language of the state, stripping Arabic of that status.

The legislation has provoked fears of “blatant discrimination against its Palestinian citizens”, says Al Jazeera, with critics describing it as the “nail in the coffin” of Israeli democracy.

What is the nation-state law?

The Bill - officially titled “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” - is the legal enshrinement of Israel as a Jewish state, rather than a multi-ethnic, multifaith one.

The “politically controversial” topic has “long been debated”, the BBC reports, but was not tabled as a possible bill until 2011. Israeli-Jewish politicians backed the move amid fears that “the founding principles of Israel’s creation, as a state for Jews in their ancient homeland” was under threat “and could become less relevant, or obsolete, in the future”.

The Bill reads: “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.”

It states that an “undivided Jerusalem” is the capital of Israel, and instates the flag, menorah, Hatikvah anthem, Hebrew calendar, Israeli Independence Day and Jewish holidays as national symbols.

An early draft of the Bill contained a provision that would have enshrined in law the establishment of Jewish-only settlements within Palestinian territory - an activity deemed illegal by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in 2016.

This provision was dropped at the last minute after Israeli President Reuven Rivlin - one of the few Jewish politicians who opposed the law - expressed fears it would lead to “discrimination and exclusion” of Arab communities, Sky News reports.

It was replaced with a loosely-defined clause that reads: “The state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, after the vote: “This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel.”

Why is the law controversial?

Boos and protests from Palestinian politicians rang out through the Knesset as the Bill was passed earlier today.

Al Jazeera says the decision to enshrine aspects of Jewish cultural heritage at a national level “further marginalises the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel”: for example, by downgrading Arabic to a “special status” language, having been an official language of the state since its inception in 1948.

The ommission of the assurance of the rights of Israeli Arabs anywhere in the Bill has “baffled many”, reports CNN

As the news site points out, the nation’s Declaration of Independence explicitly states that Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”. 

Amir Fuchs, who heads the Defending Democratic Values programme at the Israel Democracy Institute, said: “There is no country in the world that has not specifically enumerated the right of equality in its Constitution - therefore, it is difficult to understand why the authors of this Bill insist not to include this important value.

“The right to equality is embedded in the values mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, which has been the definitive document framing the character of the State of Israel for the past 70 years.”

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