JERUSALEM — Legislation declaring Israel a national homeland for the Jewish people and putting a priority on Jewish-only communities was voted into law Thursday, one of a series of controversial bills approved this week by Israeli lawmakers.
These measures have alarmed opposition leaders and been described by critics as anti-democratic and draconian.
The laws could have far-reaching implications for Israel’s non-Jewish minority, weakening the rights of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and delegitimizing those in Israel who defend them.
The nation-state law is perhaps the most contentious among them. Its drafters say it is aimed at boosting Israel’s Jewish character, and its passage into law Thursday was celebrated as a historic moment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.
Four years in the making, the legislation takes the form of a basic law and essentially becomes part of Israel’s constitution.
“This is a defining moment for the state of Israel,” said Netanyahu, speaking after the law was passed. “With this law, we have determined the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and respects the rights of all of its citizens.”
Parliamentarians from Israel’s Arab sector, which makes up roughly one-fifth of the country’s 8.5 million population, scoffed at his statement, saying the law was instead an expression of Jewish supremacy that had turned them into second-class citizens.
“Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns in the country, that the state has declared that it does not want us here,” said Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List Arab faction in the Knesset.
“The law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law,” said Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah, a Palestinian human rights organization in Israel.
He said it “constitutionally enshrined the identity of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only — despite the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of the state, residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — and guaranteed the exclusive ethnic-religious character of Israel as Jewish.”
Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute said the problem with the law was “what is missing.”
“If there had been another paragraph that also gives full equality to all citizens of Israel, then I would have been a lot more relaxed,” he said. “This law is now part of the constitution and will be with us for years to come, and its application depends on who interprets the law and when.”
Two other laws also approved this week deal with the rights of Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank and groups that advocate for them.
A law passed Tuesday places limits on Palestinian access to Israel’s High Court of Justice, redirecting administrative claims, for example over land or property rights, to the District Court.
Critics say the law is another step by Israel toward full annexation of the West Bank, land Palestinians hope to use for a future national state.
“This bill is not about law or justice, it is all about normalizing the Israeli occupation and blurring the difference between Israel and the occupied territories that are under military rule,” said Roni Pelli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “The explicit aim of the bill is to make things easier for Israeli authorities that harm Palestinians and to make it more difficult for them to achieve justice.”
Roughly 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, not including occupied East Jerusalem. Palestinians have seen some success in proving ownership of land now being used for Israeli settlements. Last year, 40 families from the Israeli outpost of Amona were evicted when a legal petition from a nearby Palestinian village was supported by Israel’s Supreme Court.
Israel’s justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, said, however, that the law gave Israeli settlers the option to appeal such rulings, as well giving all Israeli citizens, including those living in the West Bank, equal rights.
“This law, passed 50 years after the liberation of Judea and Samaria, will normalize the lives of the residents there,” said Shaked, referring to the territory by its biblical name.
Also approved Tuesday was what’s called the Breaking the Silence Law, which prevents individuals and groups that promote political action against the state of Israel or prosecution of Israeli soldiers abroad from speaking in Israeli schools.
It was named after an Israeli group that gathers anonymous testimonies from former Israeli soldiers who have served in the occupied territories.
Breaking the Silence’s Yehuda Shaul said a last-minute change to include all groups that act to promote “political proceedings against the State of Israel” made the law particularly problematic.
“The term is so broad that it may apply to any institution, organization and activist who has met with a member of parliament, foreign institution, or political body,” he said. “The question of what exactly is considered ‘political activity against the State of Israel’ will now need to be clarified in court cases.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Home Party, said Breaking the Silence “had crossed the line of legitimate dialogue a long time ago when they chose to slander the state of Israel in the international arena.”
“As long as they act against the State of Israel and the Israeli army, I will not allow them to operate in the education system,” he said.
Another piece of controversial legislation aimed at removing and restricting online content defined by the authorities as inciting against Israel was withdrawn at the last minute Wednesday by Netanyahu.