A bill seeking to ensure legal consideration for Israel’s Jewishness continued to shake up the coalition on Monday, as ministers expressed commitment to a Jewish and democratic state but had different ideas of what that means.
“If the bill doesn’t pass, we don’t have a coalition; everything will fall apart,” Economy Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said. “We all signed a [coalition] agreement. I expect everyone to keep their commitments.”
On Sunday, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, chairwoman of Hatnua, refused to bring the “Jewish state bill” proposed by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) to a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Bennett said this was “an unacceptable, unilateral act.”
According to Bennett, if there is not a law “establishing Israel as Jewish and democratic, the High Court will try to apply the Law of Return to non- Jews” – although it already does, if they have a Jewish father or grandparent – “and act as if there was never a law stating otherwise.”
Livni, however, said Elkin’s version of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People – one of many – is undemocratic.
“I am Zionist and Hatnua is Zionist. Zionists fight for Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state,” she said at a meeting of her party’s Knesset faction.
“I oppose a democratic state that is not Jewish, just as I would oppose a Jewish state that is not democratic.”
Livni said she is glad Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that everyone in Israel has equal rights, but that Elkin’s bill would change that. “We are not against a Jewish state bill, just a bill that goes against the Independence Scroll,” she said.
Livni read a quote from Likud ideological forebear Ze’ev Jabotinsky to remind the Likud of what he stood for: “I do not think that a state’s constitution should include special articles explicitly ensuring the national character. A sign of a good constitution is if few such articles are found in it.”
Within a few hours, Livni drafted her own version of the bill, which simply states that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state according to the values listed in the Independence Scroll and that all citizens have equal rights. Unlike Elkin’s bill, it does not mention the status of the Hebrew or Arabic languages, Jewish law’s place in the courts, holy sites, or anything else.
Later on Monday, Livni and Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked sought a compromise.
Netanyahu repeated his vow that the “Jewish state bill” will pass.
“Israel has always been a Jewish state, but all citizens have equal rights under law, regardless of race, gender or religion,” the prime minister told the Likud faction. “However, only the Jewish people have national rights in Israel, and that needs to be anchored in law. I will make sure this bill passes.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, chairman of Yisrael Beytenu, said at a meeting of his party’s faction that while Israel is Jewish and democratic, “Jewish values come before democratic values if and when there is a clash between them.”
According to Liberman, that is the rule that guided the state’s founding fathers. He cited the Law of Return as an example of that.
Elkin said he submitted his constitutional provision for a vote in Sunday’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting after he found that a committee led by Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison that Livni had appointed to come up with its own version of the bill was “just killing time and I lost my patience.”
The coalition chairman’s bill is not only declarative; it seeks to give the High Court of Justice something to consider when making rulings, in addition to democracy, as it would be a basic law, which the court gives constitutional standing.
The legislation states: “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people in which it realizes its hope for self-determination according to its traditional and historic heritage,” and that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Though critics of the measure say it puts Israel’s Jewishness before democracy, the bill declares that “the State of Israel has a democratic regime.” In addition, there are 11 basic laws detailing features of Israeli democracy, whereas this would be the only one dealing with its Jewishness.
The bill states that all citizens, regardless of religion or nationality, have equal individual rights, including the ability to preserve their heritage.
One of the more controversial aspects of the legislation is that it states that Hebrew is the official language of the state, whereas Arabic has a “special status” and Arabophones have the right to access to all governmental services in their language.
While critics say this advances Hebrew over Arabic, the former has always been the State of Israel’s official language, while the latter was only an official language under the British Mandate and its status remained legally vague since then.