A bill meant to anchor Israel’s status as a Jewish state in a Basic Law was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday.
MK Avi Dichter (Likud), who proposed the bill, called the vote “a big step toward establishing our identity, not only universally, but mainly toward ourselves, the Israelis, to be a free nation in our land,” a line from “Hatikva.”
Dichter has explained that the bill, which he first proposed in 2011, is meant to remedy the situation by which Israel has 11 Basic Laws, which are meant to form an eventual constitution, but none deal with national identity.
The legislation states that “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it realizes its aspirations for self-determination according to its cultural and historic traditions. The realization of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
The proposal mentions that Israel is Jewish and democratic, that the national anthem is “Hatikva,” and describes the national symbol and flag.
It also mentions the Law of Return, and calls for the government to work to strengthen Israel-Diaspora ties.
But the bill has faced stiff opposition from those who say it discriminates against minorities in Israel.
Joint List chairman MK Ayman Odeh said “the Israeli government continues to advance bills whose only purpose is the tyranny of the majority over the minority.
Instead of building a shared future for all citizens of the state, the government is acting to destroy the status of the Arab population and exclude their culture and language.”
One of the more controversial articles of the bill states that Hebrew is Israel’s official language and Arabic has a special status, requiring all government services to be available in Arabic.
Currently, the legal-linguistic situation is not so clear-cut: There is no law stating that Israel has any official language, just a British Mandate statute that Hebrew, Arabic and English may be used in court and government offices. However, court documents and rulings may not be submitted in Arabic in the State of Israel, and the Supreme Court even ruled against a petition seeking to require the judiciary to allow it.
There are some laws requiring certain things to be in Hebrew, and others requiring Arabic, as well – like warnings on products that could be dangerous – and some laws mention other languages, like Russian, and even Yiddish. A Supreme Court ruling required road signs in towns whose populations are over 6% Arab to include Arabic, in addition to Hebrew.
Despite the lack of legal clarity, it is often assumed that Hebrew and Arabic are on equal legal standing in Israel. This bill would cement the difference between them, while ensuring Arab citizens a right they did not necessarily have before, to receive government services in their native language.
Following the bill’s approval Sunday, it is set to go to a preliminary vote on Wednesday, in the first week of the Knesset’s summer session. In addition, the Justice Ministry will draft its own version of the bill within 60 days, and the two will be combined. A version of the bill that Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked proposed in 2013, when she was not a minister, does not mention languages.
There have been many iterations of this proposal, but Dichter submitted the original in 2011. The last time he put it back on the agenda, in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he supports the idea of having a nation-state bill, and appointed a ministerial committee to reach a consensus on what should be included, but the committee did not bring results.
“I’ve been working on the Jewish State bill for six years,” Dichter recounted. “Six years to establish the simple and most basic truth: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People.”
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who was filling in as chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, said he “decided to put an end to the foot-dragging and approve the nation-state bill in the ministerial committee.
“For too long we’ve been trying to discuss and make a decision about the bill, a basic bill, that it is unclear why there is no law like it so far,” Levin added. “Its simple goal is to defend Israel’s status as the state of the Jewish People. Today, the waiting period has ended. The proposal will be promoted and prepared as a government bill during this Knesset session.”
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On came out against the bill, saying that it is racist and puts too much emphasis on Israel being Jewish and not enough on democracy.
“The result of the Jewish State bill is clear. Jews will get preference over all other citizens, clearly violating human rights, democracy and the rights of the Arab minority in Israel,” she said.
Channel 2 reported that Levin, a proponent of the bill who cosponsored the 2013 version with Shaked, plans to add an article to the legislation that would give it precedent over Basic Laws.