With two laws viewed as targeting Israeli Arabs' political beliefs currently slated for debate and votes in the government, a third law - one that would criminalize statements denying Israel's Jewish and democratic nature - passed its preliminary reading on the Knesset floor Wednesday.
The bill, proposed by MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) would prescribe up to one year in jail for anybody who published calls to deny Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state, or words "that will bring about an act of hate, degradation or lack of loyalty to the state or to government authorities or to its laws that were justly established."
Orlev explained that the inspiration for the bill had come from the scandal surrounding the now-fugitive former head of the Balad Party, Azmi Bishara.
"The Azmi Bishara affair teaches us that statements very quickly turn into actions," wrote Orlev in his introduction to the legislation. "Azmi Bishara's unceasing statements against Israel's identity as a Jewish state very quickly developed into visits to enemy states like Syria and Lebanon, in spite of the law forbidding visits to an enemy state, and even reached the level of suspicions that he gave information and aided an enemy during the Second Lebanon War. The nature of the State of Israel as Jewish and democratic must be preserved and not denied by any individual."
The proposal passed its Knesset reading by a wide majority, with 47 MKs supporting the bill and 34 opposing it. All of the opposition parties except the National Union opposed the legislation, and representatives of the opposition engaged in fiery condemnation of the measure before the Knesset vote.
"Many intellectuals in academia who speak about a 'state of all its citizens' - according to MK Orlev, the proper place for them is in prison," complained Balad MK Jamal Zahalka. "Even Arab and Jewish leaders who want true democracy in Israel - according to Orlev, their place is in prison. This is, in essence, the proposal. Whoever says, 'Death to the Arabs!' shouldn't be put in jail, but anyone who says that it is a country of all its citizens should be. This is a crazy law that wishes to run a political debate through laws. You can legislate 100 laws, but we won't become Zionists."
Meretz chairman Haim Oron addressed his comments to Orlev.
"Have you have lost confidence in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state? This crazy government - what exactly are you doing? Thought police? Have you gone insane? It is the right of Israeli citizens to say that they think Judaism and democracy are not the correct formula. I think that they're wrong, but what does that have to do with criminality? Lay off this business!"
In response, Orlev accused Oron of engaging in "very base demagoguery."
Opposition to the bill was not, however, confined to far-Left parties. Kadima MK Ronnie Bar-On told Orlev, "A Jewish democratic state is something you do, not something you talk about. We want to do it, and you - with your rhetoric - ruin it time after time."
Bar-On continued, "What are you proposing here? What in your proposal isn't already covered by the Basic Law: Knesset or by the criminal codes? You want to punish people for talking? Soon, will you want to punish for thoughts?"
Criticism of the bill was not just confined to the legislature. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel quickly issued a statement condemning the proposal, calling it "an additional ingredient in a flood of anti-democratic bills which are flooding the Knesset in recent days. Similar to the proposal that would prohibit commemorating the nakba ['catastrophe'], this is a draconian initiative which delegitimizes legitimate public debate, and whose goal is to silence free debate on important questions. One hopes that the Knesset will come to its senses and remember that its role is to protect freedom of speech and not trample it."
The so-called Nakba Bill and a second bill that would require loyalty oaths as a condition for citizens' receiving a national identity card were both initiatives brought forward by Israel Beiteinu MKs, and both will be up for debate during Sunday's cabinet meeting.