Israeli ‘nation state’ bill faces fierce criticism

There are fears the bill would favour some Jewish traditions over others.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, last March. (Reuters)
Legalising discrimination. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem, last March. (Reuters)

LONDON - A legislative measure that aims to enshrine into law Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” has met fierce criticism, not just from the country’s citizens of Palestinian origin but also from Jewish Israelis.

The bill, which has passed one of its three parliamentary readings, is proposed to be part of the “Basic Laws” that enjoy constitution-like status in Israel’s legal system.

After failing to pass a version of the bill in 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is pushing to have a vote on the new draft in parliament before the end of the current session but there are disagreements on the final draft among members of his ruling coalition.

“Just as there are laws important to you, I respect this and you should also respect that this law is very important to us,” Netanyahu told his coalition partners.

The measure declares that “the state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community.” The bill would make Hebrew the only official language of the state, reducing Arabic to a “special” language.

Discrimination 

Such suggestions have raised concerns of discrimination among Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, most notably those of Palestinian origin and whose first language is Arabic.

“A constitution is supposed to guarantee a state for all its citizens. It must not explicitly exclude the Palestinian citizens, non-immigrant homeland minorities, who make up 20% of Israel’s population,” Hassan Jabareen, general director of rights group Adalah, said.

Secular and liberal Israelis were alarmed by the section of the legislation that would instruct judges to look for precedents from Jewish legal rulings in cases that Israeli law does not offer guidance. There are fears the bill would favour some Jewish traditions over others.

The measure drew sharp criticism from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose post is ceremonial. He warned of the damage such a law would do to Israel’s reputation. “[The bill] could harm the Jewish people and Jews around the world and in Israel and could even be used by our enemies as a weapon,” Rivlin said in an open letter.

“[It] would essentially allow any community to establish residential communities that exclude Sephardic Jews, ultra-Orthodox people, Druze, LGBT people. Is that what the Zionist vision means?”

'One of the most important bills'

Supporters of the bill in the Likud party said the Israeli president should not be involved in politics and accused him of being motivated by personal dislike for the prime minister.

“The nation-state bill is one of the most important bills that we [the Likud] have promoted in the last ten years and it ensures the Jewish people’s principled hold on their land. I regret that President Rivlin elects time and again to attack the basic values of the right-wing government and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” parliament member Miki Zohar said.

Rivlin’s position was supported by the office of Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit.

“This is blatant discrimination this means that the residents’ selection committee can hang up a sign saying: ‘No entry to non-Jews’,” said Eyal Zandberg of the attorney general’s office.

Israeli commentators did not hold back their criticism, either.

'Extreme nationalism'

“If this basic law passes, Israel will become a leader among nationalist countries like Poland and Hungary, to which it has drawn closer recently while distancing itself from properly run Western countries,” wrote Mordechai Kremnitzer in Haaretz.

“Israel wants to be ‘darkness unto the nations’ — to remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance.”

Also writing in Haaretz, Bradley Burston said the bill was a “giant step” towards fascism.

“As its name suggests, the proposed law has everything to do with extreme nationalism and with the exercise of raw, explicitly unequal power. It has nothing to do with what we used to know as Judaism,” he wrote.

Some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners warned they would not support the bill if a watered-down version was tabled.

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