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‘Nationality Law’ defining Israel as a Jewish state passes first reading in Knesset

The bill seeks to firmly assert that Israel is a Jewish state, enshrining the state’s symbols and the designation of Jerusalem as its capital, and assigning Hebrew as the country’s official language.

Knesset Members applaud as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the special plenary session at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Gil Yochanan/POOL
Knesset Members applaud as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the special plenary session at the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, in Jerusalem, on Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Gil Yochanan/POOL

On Monday night, the Knesset plenum passed the first reading of the proposed “Nationality Law,” which seeks to canonize “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People.” Sixty-four Knesset members voted in favor of the law, and 50 parliamentarians opposed.

In addition, the law would enshrine the state’s Jewish symbols and the designation of Jerusalem as its capital. The law designates Hebrew as the country’s official language, with Arabic maintaining a special status to be utilized for the provision of state services to Arabic speakers. It also sets the Hebrew lunar calendar as the country’s official calendar, and makes Independence Day and other Jewish holidays, events and memorial days into national law.

The author of the bill, Knesset Member Avi Dichter of the Likud Party, opened the session by saying that “the Nationality Law is the insurance policy we will leave behind for future generations. The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

In explanatory remarks, the bill’s aim was stated as “to enshrine in basic legislation the identity of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as well as adding a series of instructions to its constitutional framework dealing with the country’s fundamental characteristics as a Jewish state.”

The bill neither grants nor detracts from individual rights based on ethnicity or nationality, but became controversial due to its clear emphasis on the Jewishness of the state.

Opposition Knesset Members Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) and Yael German (Yesh Atid) claimed in the session that the bill places too much emphasis on majority will and would inherently threaten minority rights.

Ahmad Tibi (Joint Arab list) said: “What the law actually declares is that there are two kinds of civilians. One group comprised of Jews that has rights, and the other comprised of tolerable guests. The law practically determines Jews-only communities. If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is.”

Though Arab parties were the most virulently opposed to the bill, Jewish religious parties noted that the bill’s definition was lacking a critical emphasis on Judaism and Torah.

In order to become law, the bill needs to pass a second and third reading. At present, it remains unclear whether the coalition will continue to advance the law towards passage.

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