A clause in the Jewish nation-state bill allowing for communities to establish towns exclusively for certain populations - excluding others on whatever grounds they deem fit - was panned by politicians on the Right and Left as well as by legal authorities at a Knesset committee meeting on the subject.
Basic Law: Nation-State of the Jewish People declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and includes ideas of what that entails, including: the national anthem and state symbol; having Shabbat and Jewish holidays as national days of rest; the Law of Return; commitment to Diaspora Jewry; and more.
One article of the bill states that “every resident of Israel, without difference of religion or nationality, has the right to act to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity,” and that “the state has the right to allow a community, including of one religion or nationality to establish a separate communal town.”
Eyal Zandberg, an attorney from the Justice Ministry, said that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit found the article to have constitutional problems and that it should not be part of the law.
Zanderg explained that the rest of the bill speaks to things that apply to a national group, and not to discrimination against an individual.
“To have a Jewish and democratic Israel, we do not have to discriminate against citizens... The bill would give constitutional legitimacy to discrimination against citizens based on their nationality or religion... That is clear discrimination that cannot be accepted,” he said.
Similarly, Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee legal adviser Gur Bligh pointed out that while most of the nation-state bill reinforces the existing situation, this clause confers a right that doesn’t exist in the current law.
“We think the instruction allowing the state to allow separate communal towns for one nationality is unprecedented and brings up significant difficulties... specifically in relation to the principle of equality,” Bligh argued. “We suggest wording an article that allows communal towns based on a unique culture, and not one that allows excluding residents from the town based on their national or religious identity.”
Likud MK Amir Ohana, chairman of the special committee working on the bill, said the legislation is clearly meant to respond to the 2000 Kaadan case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that members of the Kaadan family, who are Arabs, be allowed to live in Katzir, which has an acceptance committee, even though the land on which the town was built was leased to the Jewish Agency.
However, Ohana said he saw “difficulties” with the bill: “A community of people of Ashkenazi descent could build a town for only Ashkenazim and not be willing to accept an Ohana or Malkieli,” he said, referring to Sephardic last names. “That is their cultural character, and the question is whether this article allows it or not. Replace Ashkenazim with Sephardim, Ethiopians, LGBT people, etc. It’s problematic.”
MK Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List opposed the clause, but said that coexistence is stronger than what the government plans.
“In the 50s, land was taken from Arab towns to establish Upper Nazareth, and today, 20% of its residents are Arab,” he said. “Apparently, the reality is that Arabs and Jews can live together, and that’s what’s bothering you, so you want to pass this law.”
Jabareen also called for the bill to say that all communities in Israel must be treated equally.
Bayit Yehudi MK Nissan Slomiansky was one of the few who supported the clause, saying that when Israel was established it was clear that towns were built on an ideological basis, such as Elkana, the settlement in which he lives, where residents are religious Zionists.
“There was a High Court case against me, and the ruling was that if people are organized and want to establish a town with a specific character, that is acceptable,” Slomiansky said. “Whoever wants a different town can go somewhere else. There’s a difference between a city like Ramat Gan and a town like this. The idea doesn’t have to be racist.”
MK Michael Malkieli of Shas said he didn’t think living in separate neighborhoods based on religious level was a problem.
“It won’t increase divisions in the nation. I don’t want to tell someone who lives a secular life not to travel on Shabbat, but you can’t ignore that we are at different poles,” the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lawmaker said. “Dragging this into the topic of equality is taking away from its real meaning.”
MK Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid, who lives in the religious Zionist town of Hoshaya, compared the situation to the need to prove Judaism before the rabbinate, and wondered: “When someone goes to sign up for a town, do they need a note from the rabbinate? Or to testify before a religious court? Don’t we have enough of that? Doesn’t the state pay a heavy enough price? Now we won’t just check who’s Jewish, it’ll also be religious level, with proof. How should people dress? Like me, or like MK Malkieli?”
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni explained that the High Court allowed minority groups to establish separate towns based on unique characteristics, not nationality.
“The idea that everyone will take land for himself, his nation and his religion is a dangerous opening,” she added.
MK Tamar Zandberg of Meretz said that Israel has a “high level of de facto segregation in education and residential neighborhoods. Most of us live in an area of people like ourselves,” she said. “This has a high price, and to give legitimacy to trends of separation in a Basic Law is truly harmful.”
Joint List lawmaker Dov Henin argued that the bill is similar to the 1950 Group Areas Act, which established apartheid in South Africa.
“The law establishing apartheid separated groups,” he remarked. “South Africa was boycotted by the whole world, and you’re trying to bring a boycott on Israel. Otherwise, it’s not clear to me why you’re promoting this bill.”