The Jewish nation-state bill was authorized on Monday for a first reading in the plenum, without some of its most contentious elements, in a last-minute move before the Knesset’s Passover recess begins or it is dispersed for an election.
The Jewish nation-state bill, a draft Basic Law with constitutional heft that declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, has been on and off of the Knesset’s agenda in various forms since 2011, when then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter, now of the Likud, proposed it.
The bill would also anchor in law the state symbol, Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the connection with Diaspora Jewry, national holidays, and the right of all Israeli residents to preserve their heritage without difference of religion and nationality.
“This is the law of all laws,” Likud MK Amir Ohana, chairman of the special committee on the bill, said after the vote. “It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel, which says that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people. That is the founding principle on which the state was established.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud), a strong backer of the proposal, called it “Zionism’s flagship bill... expressing the deepest foundations of Zionism and the foundations on which the State of Israel was built. It will bring order, clarify what is taken for granted and put Israel back on the right path. A country that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
The latest draft of the bill removes an article that says it trumps all other laws, meaning the principle of Israel being a Jewish state, which is found in the nation-state bill, should be considered over the elements of Israeli democracy found in other laws. It also does not include the article that says Israel is “Jewish and democratic in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”
In addition, the committee struck the words “Jewish law” from the article stating courts should consider it if there is an issue with no legal precedent, leaving only “the principles of liberty, justice, integrity and peace of Jewish tradition.”
The bill also no longer specifically mentions the Law of Return, instead speaking more generally about Israel being open to “Jewish aliya and the ingathering of exiles.”
The bill does include allowing communities, including religions and nationalities, to build separate towns, an article meant to circumvent a High Court of Justice ruling from 2000 that required a town to allow an Arab family to move in, even though it was built on Jewish Agency land. A more recent Supreme Court ruling allowed small towns to have acceptance committees.
Attorney-General’s Office representative Eyal Zandberg spoke out against the article, saying “it permits harming a person because of his nationality or religion. That is blatant discrimination between people that does not fit Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.”
The latest draft still says that Hebrew is the official language of Israel, while Arabic has special status, but it says that Arabic’s current status will not be harmed in any way.
Kulanu faction chairman Roy Folkman, whose party pushed for the removal of some of the bill’s more controversial elements, said that the vote is a step toward writing a constitution for Israel.
“There are some defects that need to be fixed before the final reading, including the separate towns article. At the same time, in light of my demand and with the backing of the attorney-general, we reached the appropriate balance for Israel to be the Jewish state with a democracy that has equality for all citizens. These are two equal principles, the Jewish nation-state bill together with Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty,” he said.
Folkman accused the opposition of instinctively coming out against the bill, rather than working on “delicate agreements between worldviews.
“More than once the Israeli lawmaker avoided dealing with sensitive issues at the heart of political disputes, which leads to people running to the High Court of Justice, and that is not ideal. We as legislators have to courageously deal with the core issues,” he said.
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich was unhappy with the compromises made on the legislation, saying “it’ll only help the High Court’s constitutional revolution,” and that the bill was rushed through “because of narrow political considerations and hysteria over an early election.”th
MK Yael German of Yesh Atid also pointed to the timing of the vote.
“We cannot ignore that fact that this is supposed to be a bill that we can identify with, and should be something to be celebrated, but bringing it up now makes it a tool of petty politics, another law with which the Likud can show its ultra-nationalism while the scent of an election is in the air. That is not appropriate,” German said.
Meretz MK Michal Rozin called said the legislation “proves how ultra-nationalist, racist and dangerous this government is.
Kulanu’s capitulation for a soft version... shows how the country is being sold for Netanyahu’s political survival.”
MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint List said the bill would establish an apartheid state.
“The picture is clear now,” she said. “The Likud’s election campaign will be on this topic, to lash out at the Arab public again and again. Why would they need this bill now? What is so urgent for the Likud?... This coalition doesn’t care what the attorney-general says... he says this is blatant discrimination – and no one cares.”