(July 19, 2018 / JNS) After a heated session that lasted well into the night, the Knesset Plenum passed the controversial “Nationality Bill” into law on Thursday. The bill now holds weight as one of Israel’s “Basic Laws,” the highest level of legal authority, being that Israel has no official constitution.
It followed on the heels of narrow approval from a special Knesset committee headed by Netanyahu appointee Likud Party MK Amir Ohana before it then moved to the Knesset for its final reading.
Included in the legislation, which passed with a vote of 62-55 (and two abstentions) are the official recognition of Israel’s state symbols, including the menorah emblem, the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Hebrew as Israel’s official language, the right of return for Jews living in the Diaspora, as well as the utilization of democracy as Israel’s state democratic process.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered these opening remarks after 3 a.m. on Thursday: “This is a defining moment in the history of Zionism and in the history of the State of Israel. 122 years ago after [Theodor] Herzl shared his vision, we have established into law the fundamental tenant of our existence. ‘Israel’ is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
The legislation also includes language enshrining Shabbat and Jewish holidays as official days of rest in the country, though allowing for non-Jews to determine their own rest days and holidays.
Contention over wording pertaining to the official allowance of the creation of Jewish-only towns threatened to derail the legislation, but was satisfactorily amended to say that “the state considers the development of Jewish settlement a national value and will act in order to encourage and promote the foundation and establishment of such settlement.”
Another topic of contention was a clause involving ties between Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora.
‘Two kinds of opponents’
Speaking to JNS in a state of euphoria, Ohana said that “70 years after the founding of the State of Israel, what the current Knesset, Israel’s 20th, succeeded in passing, should have been passed in our first Knesset.”
He went on to explain the bill’s ramifications. “The passing of the law declaring Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people shows that in principal, we are not a bi-national state, not a bi-language state and not a bi-capital state. We are only a Jewish state with Hebrew as an official language, and Jerusalem as our undivided capital city.”
Ohana acknowledges the adamant opponents of the new law, though differentiates between Arabs who oppose the law and Jews who do so, particularly his fellow members of Knesset.
“There are two kinds of opponents” to the law,” he said. “The Arabs, I understand, want a binational state and don’t want to recognize Israel as the Homeland of the Jewish people. I disagree with them, but I understand them.”
He added that “those who call themselves ‘Zionists’ in the opposition, what exactly is in this bill—the version that we passed—that they are opposed to? I have yet to get any good answers based on Zionist values. It’s most likely a matter of coalition vs. opposition.”
Ohana concludes the conversation by saying that he wishes a “mazal tov to the State of Israel!”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said in a statement that “although the version that passed is much better than previous iterations, the nation-state law is an unnecessary embarrassment to Israel.
“Rather than celebrating 70 years of independence with an initiative to strengthen the Jewish and democratic values of the Jewish nation-state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the Israeli Parliament [Knesset] today passed a law that is jingoistic and divisive,” he said.
“The new law threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora, and fuel the campaign to delegitimize Israel. It will fall to future leaders to rectify the damage and return Israel to the Zionist vision that for 70 years has guided Israel’s vitality, dynamism and international reputation.”
Like any other Western nation
Some Diaspora Jewish leaders have voiced their disapproval of the bill in recent weeks, as they claim that one of the clauses, reworded from its original format, implies that Israel would act in the Diaspora to improve relations between Israelis and non-Israelis, though not between both populations in Israel. Some interpreted the final text as an attempt by Israel to weaken the influence of Diaspora Jews in dictating Israeli policies, such as prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.
However, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, head of International Law at the Jerusalem-based Kohelet Policy Forum and Professor of International and Constitutional Law at Northwestern University, told JNS that “the overwrought reactions by Diaspora Jews to Israel’s commonplace law about national character are like those of someone in a romantic relationship they’ve grown tired of. The most innocuous actions by their partner can become annoying. It seems that some of the organizational leadership of American Jewry are looking for an excuse to break up with Israel. If it wasn’t this, it would be something else.
Former Knesset member Dov Lipman says he opposes the new law due to its final wording. He tells JNS that he “is all in favor of the idea of having a Jewish nation-state law. I think it’s critical since without a constitution, courts often make decisions that hurt Israel’s status as a Jewish state because all they have to go on is ‘human rights,’ and at times, we have to ensure the Jewish character of the state.”
He adds, however, that “when you enshrine a law that Israel is a ‘Jewish state,’ you have to go overboard, in my opinion, in making sure that those who aren’t Jewish maintain their equality and feel comfortable.”
Lipman cites two clauses in the new law that he feels do the exact opposite. “Dropping Arabic to a secondary language when 20 percent of the country consists of Arabs is a slap in the face.”
He also says the law also makes the Druze community feel secondary. “The Druze population, who are proud Israelis, and serve in the military and the police, who speak Arabic … my Druze friend just called me and said, ‘You spit in my face.’ ”
Lipman also takes issue with the clause in the law that allows groups in Israel to create and maintain neighborhoods and communities based on identity.
He says “this clause is taken by the world to mean “Jewish-only neighborhoods and Arab minorities out.” Lipman explains that these types of neighborhoods happen naturally; they don’t have to be entrenched as a right and give people an excuse to claim that Israel is excluding Arabs.
“Israel does stand for justice, equality and human rights, but this clause makes the statement that we are officially in favor of Jewish segregation. It arms our enemies to make claims about Israel which are untrue.”
Kontorovich, however, released a statement citing the hypocrisy of Western nations who would take Israel to task over the new law.
“Israel’s nation-state bill is similar to provisions in many Western democratic constitutions, which provide for an official language and national character that reflects the majority of the population. Since Israel doesn’t have a formal constitution, it is imperative that the Jewish state has legislation that affirms the values and ethos it was founded upon.”
He added that “the Israeli bill is actually far weaker than constitutions of many European democracies, which unlike Israel even create an official national religion. The present bill does not violate anyone’s individual rights or create any special privileges for Jews.
“The faux outrage against the bill,” he stated, “is simply another attempt to single out the Jewish state and hold her to a double standard. What’s good for the United Kingdom and Spain should also be good for Israel.”