Israeli Knesset passes controversial Nation State Bill
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Israeli Knesset passes controversial Nation State Bill

Critics warn new bill that defines country as nation state of the Jewish people may sideline minorities

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset in 2016
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking in the Knesset in 2016

British Jews have slammed Israeli politicians for passing a “racist” law that defines Israel as an exclusively Jewish state to promote a system of “first and second class citizens”.

The ‘Jewish Nation State Bill,’ which passed on Tuesday night by 62 votes to 55, has been championed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and will now become a Basic Law, a set of fundamental laws that together act much like a constitution.

It downgrades Arabic from an official language, promotes the advancement of Jewish settlement as a national objective, and establishes East Jerusalem as part of Israel’s capital. A clause legalising community segregation was only removed after protests from Israel’s president.

The Bill, which was brought by Likud MK Avi Dicther and voted through by Israel’s right-wing majority, says “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it”.

The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) said it was “Israel’s first attempt to constitutionally anchor its identity in a Basic Law,” but added: “It does not enumerate the principle of equality, or include the democratic character of the state’s identity.”

They added: “The bill completely ignores the Declaration of Independence, which stipulates that all citizens of the state must have equal rights. Even the words “Jewish and democratic” appear nowhere in the bill.”

A spokeswoman for Yachad in the UK said the bill “runs counter to Israel’s Declaration of Independence which enshrines freedom and democracy for all Israelis irrespective of their faith, race or sex”.

She added: “As British Jews who enjoy the protection of our rights as a minority, we must speak up in opposition to this racist bill which turns minorities in Israel into second class citizens… It is a gift to all those who seek to deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and endangers the future of the Jewish homeland.”

Adam Ognall, chief executive of New Israel Fund UK, hit on the same themes. “Beginning with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Jewish value of human dignity, and the principle of the equality of all people, has formed the democratic foundation of the state,” he said.

“This law has betrayed those values. It is a slap in the face to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel. Legislation that identifies first- and second-class citizens has no place in a democracy.”

British Jews took to social media to vent their anger, with veteran screenwriter Maurice Gran appearing to capture the mood by tweeting: “Anti-Semites in the @labour party have no right to call #Israel a racist state, but I’m allowed to say the present government of Israel is now clearly racist.”

In the United States, senior leaders also voiced concerns, with Jerry Silverman, president and chief executive of the Jewish Federations of North America, saying the bill “falls short of the expectations we have of Israel as a thriving democracy”.

He was speaking after an open letter of concern from American Jewish organisations including J Street, T’ruah, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair North America, Keshet, National Council of Jewish Women, Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel, and Tivnu: Building Justice.

They wrote: “The defining characteristic of a modern democracy is its promise to protect the rights of all people. This bill removes that democratic basis and gives constitutional protection to policies that could discriminate against minorities, including women, Palestinian citizens, racial minorities, LGBT people, non-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Druze, Christians, and others.”

IDI analysts said the legal segregation of communities that the original wording of the Bill was particularly problematic. “The granting of legal protection, and all the more so at the level of a Basic Law, to racially-based segregation in residential communities constitutes a severe blow to the principles of equality and human dignity,” they said.

“A United States court ruled in the 1950s that separate cannot be equal. Do we want to be the only democracy on earth to make racially-based segregation legal?”

The bill also poses problems for the the relationship with diaspora Jewry, after it was recently amended to state that Israel must work only “in the Diaspora” to nurture a relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

“This means that Israel does not need to do such work within the country itself,” said the IDI. “This was a capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox parties, who were afraid that the bill would be interpreted as requiring Israel to recognise the non-Orthodox religious streams in Judaism.

“There is no reason that a Basic Law that defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People should contain a clause that alienates a large portion of Jews worldwide.

Israel’s Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin have both spoken out against it, as has Isaac Herzog, the former Israeli Opposition leader and incoming head of the Jewish Agency, who said he had “grave concerns about the damage this bill will do to Israeli society and Israeli democracy”.

Some Jewish organisations have welcomed the new law. Advocacy group Israeli-Jewish Congress president Vladimir Sloutsker called it “a long overdue” and “a truly historic and defining moment in the long and proud history of Zionism and the modern State of Israel”.

He added: “The IJC promotes of the principle of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This law simply corrects a long overdue injustice and enshrines this very basic and fundamental principle. Israel shall always remain a strong, proud and vibrant democracy, and there is nothing in this law that will diminish that.”

But minority representatives in Israel feared the worst, with Arab MP Ahmed Tibi describing the bill as the “death of democracy” and Arab-rights organisation Adalah saying it advanced “ethnic superiority by promoting racist policies”.

Last week Netanyahu said: “We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel’s democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides.”

Following the vote, he said: “We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. This is our state – the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag.”

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