Israeli cabinet passes 'Jewish nation state' bill

Israeli cabinet passes 'Jewish nation state' bill
A controversial draft law defining Israel as the 'national state of the Jewish people' has been passed by the Israeli cabinet. Critics say the potential basic law is racist and discriminates against non-Jews.
4 min read
23 November, 2014
Netanyahu is competing with ultranationalist over Israel's Palestinian citizens [Getty]
The Israeli cabinet Sunday voted in favour of a proposal to anchor into constitutional law the notion of the country as the national homeland of the Jewish people.

Separately, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also announced an initiative to strip Palestinian citizens of their residency rights if they or relatives take part in any unrest.

The draft basic law, ‘Israel, the national state of the Jewish people’, was passed by 14-6 votes and if signed into law would mean the country would no longer be defined as “Jewish and democratic”.
     We need to say things clearly in face of those who want to turn Israel into a bi-national state.

– Uri Ariel

The bill instead formalises Israel’s “Jewish character”, institutionalises Jewish law as the foundation for legislation and includes a section demoting the Arabic language to one of “special status”.

Arabic is currently an official language in Israel and is spoken by the 20 percent of the population that are Palestinian citizens.

Both Israeli and Palestinian critics have rounded on the law as fundamentally undemocratic, with Palestinian citizens of Israel decrying the proposal as an attempt to formalise in law the discrimination they say one-fifth of the country is already exposed to.

Majd Kayyal of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said the passing of the law means “the institutionalisation of racism, which is already a reality on the street, in both law and at the heart of the political system”.

The bill is scheduled for presentation to the Israeli parliament later this week for a first reading.

The draft bill was to have been ratified last week by a ministerial committee, but Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, wielded her authority as chair of the committee to postpone the vote, arguing that it would threaten Israeli democracy, and put an already fragile government coalition under further strain.

That, however, caused Naftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, to threaten to withdraw from the government.

Ultimately, Netanyahu presented the law before the whole cabinet to ensure its passage and declared his own support.

Housing Minister Uri Ariel, also of Jewish Home, told the Israeli YNet news site that Israel "needs this bill now because the Jewish character of the state is being eroded. We need to say things clearly in face of the Palestinians and others within Israel who want to turn it into a bi-national state."

Ahead of the vote Sunday, and in defence of his support for the bill, Netanyahu cited the "many people challenging the character of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. There are some who wish to form autonomies in the Galilee or Negev and thus reject our nationality."

Nevertheless, under growing pressure from ultra-nationalists, Netanyahu is also partly responding to the prevailing political winds. Some constitutional experts doubt the bill will get far and even the government’s own legal advisor, Yehuda Weinstein, criticised the proposal for weakening the state's democratic character.

Netanyahu plans to present his own version of the bill to be voted on in parliament, likely a hybrid bill, with some modification.

But the seeming momentum behind the bill is evidence of a country lurching ever more rightward and Palestinian observers say it only formalises what is already a reality.

National Democratic Assembly leader Jamal Zahalka told al-Araby al-Jadeed “the bill is not democratic and legitimises racial laws. It also provides the Israeli judiciary with a legal tool that can legitimise racism and discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel.”

Said Kayyal: "Democracy guarantees that all citizens have the same rights and are equal before the state, but this racist change introduces a distinction on the basis of religion," he said.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu also announced his intention to draft a bill that would empower authorities to revoke Palestinians of their residency and welfare rights if they or their relatives participate in unrest.

He said the proposal would complement the policy of demolishing family homes of those involved in attacks on Jewish Israeli citizens which Israel uses in occupied East Jerusalem as well as in the West Bank.

Human Rights Watch last week criticised that policy as a form of “collective punishment.”