Netanyahu announces support for 'Jewish state bill'

PM vows to push forward bill promising equal rights to all citizens while recognizing that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People.

Netanyahu at cabinet meeting (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu at cabinet meeting
(photo credit: REUTERS)
An initiative giving Israel's status as a Jewish State legal weight received Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support Sunday, ahead of a vote on the bill in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
"The judiciary, which recognizes Israel's democratic side, will also have to recognize that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People," Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting.
The prime minister vowed to push the bill forward, but said it must undergo many changes.
"In the end, we will make it clear that Israel is the Jewish nation-state, while promising equal rights to all its citizens," he added.
The "Jewish state bill" submitted by coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) for ministerial approval ahead of votes in the Knesset is one of several incarnations of proposed constitutional provisions meant to define Israel's national character in recent years.
The bills' purpose is not only declarative; they seek to give the High Court something to consider when making rulings, in addition to democracy, as they would be Basic Laws, which the court gives constitutional standing.
When one of the versions of the bill was brought to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in 2013, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who opposed it on grounds that it puts Jewishness before democracy, decided to form a committee led by Hebrew University Law Professor Ruth Gavison to draft a Basic Law defining Israel's Jewishness, but over a year later, it has not yielded any results.
Elkin's version of the bill, which is nearly identical to the one he co-sponsored with then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter in the previous Knesset, is considered more stringent than the one by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), and even more so than Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon's contribution to the "Jewish State" debate, which would have essentially passed the Independence Scroll as a Basic Law.
The legislation states that "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 bill say it puts Israel's Jewishness before democracy, the bill does declare "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 also 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 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 of the bill say that it is advancing Hebrew over Arabic, the former has always been the State of Israel's official language, while the latter has never been an official language by law, and a "special status" would legally elevate it from its current position.
Another divisive article is that the government work toward "Jewish settlement in its land and allocate resources to this goal," as well as one stating that Jewish law should be an inspiration for lawmakers and judges.
In addition, the bill states that holy places must be protected from "anything that could harm the freedom of access by religions to the places that are sacred to them or to their sentiments toward those places." This could support claims that Jewish people should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.
The proposal also states that Hatikva is the national anthem, that the Jewish calendar is the official one, that Jewish schools will teach Jewish history and tradition, that every Jewish person has the right to move to Israel and the government will strengthen ties with the Jewish Diaspora, as well as describing the Israeli flag and the state symbol.
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said that Netanyahu's support for the bill, which she called "a crime against democracy" shows he thinks that a Jewish State is an extreme nationalist one in which racism is backed by the law.
"This bill subordinates the democratic regime and the judiciary to Jewish nationalism by Elkin, by declaring that Arabic is not an official language, that new laws must be in the spirit of 'Jewish law' and that the state will promote Jewish settlement but is not required to build for other nationalities that live here," she stated.
Gal-On added that the prime minister should be trying to calm the atmosphere following the rioting and terror attacks by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in recent days, but that he is trying to pander to the right-wing in the Likud ahead of party's leadership primary next month.
The Meretz leader warned that if other coalition parties "which claim to be moderate and support democratic values allow the bill to pass [in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation] they will be responsible for one of the blackest marks in the Israeli law books."