The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jewish or democratic? Israel debates its founding principles.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports the “nation-state bill” aimed at boosting Israel’s Jewish character. (Yuri Kadobnov/Pool/AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports the “nation-state bill” aimed at boosting Israel’s Jewish character. (Yuri Kadobnov/Pool/AP)

JERUSALEM — A bill making its way through Israel’s parliament has sparked fierce debate over the foundations of democracy in the country and what it means to be Israeli, with critics saying it will deny equal rights to non-Jewish citizens.

On Thursday, the Israeli government edged closer to approving the “nation-state bill” aimed at boosting Israel’s Jewish character. Proposed by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and supported by much of his right-wing coalition, the bill clarifies in about a dozen points Israel’s purpose as “a national home for the Jewish people” and pinpoints its national symbols.

 It could be voted into law as soon as next week.

The thrust of the proposed legislation is similar to the Declaration of Independence signed by Israel’s founders in 1948, except that the historic document also underscored the democratic values of the state, giving the country’s Arab inhabitants “equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

In contrast, the nation-state bill, which if approved would be a basic law with constitutional status, downgrades that minority group’s language, Arabic, to a “special status,” instead of an official language alongside Hebrew. Arabic is spoken by 20 percent of the population. 

The bill also includes a particularly controversial clause enabling the creation of homogenous communities based on religion and nationality.

Clause 7B has been widely condemned as anti-democratic and racist by opposition lawmakers, members of the Arab community and human rights groups. It has also drawn criticism from some aligned with the Israeli leadership.

On Monday, President Reuven Rivlin expressed his concern about that clause in a letter to Netanyahu. The bill has no balance and “could harm the Jewish people and Jews around the world and in Israel,” he said. “It could even be used by our enemies as a weapon.”

The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, and representatives of the attorney general’s office have expressed similar concerns.

Speaking in the parliament on Thursday, Yousef Jabareen, an Israeli Arab member of the Knesset, called the legislation an “apartheid law,” referring to the discriminatory system that once governed South Africa.

He also said it was no different from the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States after the Civil War and into the 20th century.

Roughly 75 percent of Israel’s population of 8.5 million is Jewish, according to the latest figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics. Muslim and Christian Arabs make up 21 percent of the population, and other non-Jewish minority groups account for 5 percent. Israel also has populations that are ethnically Ethiopian and Russian, whose Jewish status is sometimes questioned by the state.

Pnina Tamano-Shatta, a lawmaker of Ethiopian heritage, said activists supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians would celebrate this law.

“I have persuaded BDS activists that Israel is not apartheid, but if this bill passes, I won’t be able to do that anymore,” she said in an earlier discussion. 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, which represents 1.5 million Reform Jews in 900 synagogues in the United States and Canada, also said he believed the law would “empower our enemies, giving them more fodder and weakening the case we make for Israel every day across America.”

Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute said, “There was no country in the world that had not specifically enumerated the right of equality in its constitution.”

“The right to equality is embedded in the values mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, which has been the definitive document framing the character of the State of Israel for the past 70 years,” he added. If the nation-state bill is approved, it would override other basic laws on the issue.

Avraham Diskin, a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the law was designed specifically to address Israel’s enemies, including the Palestinians, who do not “recognize the right of the Jewish state to exist.”

“There are some controversial clauses, but it is really a very simple and declarative law that people with political interests like to say is racist because they do not believe the Jewish state has the right to exist,” he said.

Despite the backlash, Netanyahu has expressed a desire to see the bill passed before the Knesset breaks for the summer next week. Addressing his coalition partners earlier this month, the prime minister said it was time to complete the legislative process on the bill, the Jerusalem Post reported. 

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said: “This is one of the most important bills the Knesset has ever considered. It expresses the deep foundations of Zionism on which the state was built.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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