Negotiating Identity

How will the contentious Nation-State bill play out in the upcoming Knesset session?

MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) was removed from the Knesset after shouting out that the Nation-State bill is racist. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) was removed from the Knesset after shouting out that the Nation-State bill is racist.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
When the Knesset reconvenes for its winter session this month, a number of controversial pieces of legislation will be at the top of the agenda, but none more so than the nationality or Nation-State bill.
The contentious legislation, first introduced four years ago by Likud MK Avi Dichter (then a Kadima Knesset Member), which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, finally passed a stormy preliminary Knesset reading in May.
An equally boisterous session in July of a joint Knesset committee preparing the bill ahead of its legislative passage was a clear indication that passions are still running high.
Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi was removed after repeatedly shouting that the bill is racist, and two opposition Meretz MKs were expelled for heckling bill supporters.
Unlike most Western countries, Israel has never had a constitution. When the state was founded in 1948, its Declaration of Independence clearly defined Israel as a Jewish state.
Critically, the declaration also enshrined democracy as a core principle, ensuring “complete equality of social and political rights for all its inhabitants.”
Opponents of the nationality bill fear the new legislation will upset the delicate balance that has existed for almost seven decades between these two elements, tilting the balance in favor of Israel as a Jewish state at the expense of democracy, thereby turning Israel’s non-Jewish minorities into second-class citizens.
The proposal states that Hebrew is Israel’s official language and stipulates that Jewish law and the principles of Jewish heritage should serve as a source of inspiration for courts in their deliberations. It also affirms Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The bill also proposes to enshrine the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state as well as adding Jewish and Israeli national holidays into the Basic Law. The right of return for Jews, the ingathering of the exiles, Jewish settlement and relations with the Jewish Diaspora are also mentioned.
At the same time, the bill seeks to grant the right to preserve the heritage of all residents of Israel, regardless of religion or nationality, and to protect the holy sites of all religions.
“What’s at stake now is the delicate balance that has been established over 70 years that proved that it is possible to be both a Jewish and democratic state. We’ve declared it in the Declaration of Independence and ever since in Basic Laws, in government decisions and policies and in declarations of our leaders,” says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“We have been proving – to ourselves and the world – that this delicate, difficult combination is possible. The basic logic of this vulgar legislation says that Israel cannot be both Jewish and democratic. We need to choose and we are choosing the Jewish element over and on top of the democratic element. It’s bad for us as Israelis, bad for us as Jews and bad for us as the one Jewish state in the world.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dismissed accusations that the nationality bill discriminates against Israel’s minorities.
“There is no contradiction between the bill and the equal rights of all citizens of Israel,” he said. “The bill is a crushing answer to anyone who tries to deny the deep connection between the people of Israel and its land. The Likud will advance this law and I expect all the Zionist parties to support it.”
The draft bill defines Israel as a “Jewish state with a democratic regime” rather than as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Under the new provisions, the state would be required to preserve the Jewish character of the state and protect sacred Jewish sites according to Jewish tradition.
Once enacted, the bill will be one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which have been recognized by the courts as a de facto constitution.
One of the main criticisms of the proposed legislation is that it does not mention the word “equality” or provide rights for non-Jews, mainly Arabs, who make up onefourth of Israel’s population.
Among the bill’s opponents is Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh. “No racist law can rewrite history and facts,” he says. “We are sons of this homeland and have no other home. No apartheid law could erase the fact that there are two peoples here. Only a crazy state acts like this.”
Zionist Union leader and opposition head Isaac Herzog accused the government of playing with fire. “The right wing has the greatest sense of insecurity about the future of the State of Israel because they want to get rid of the Palestinians. The Declaration of Independence calls for equality, but where is it in law? You’re lighting a fire that could tear the country apart,” he said.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yisrael Beytenu) defended the bill, noting that about 120 states have national anthems, 136 have references to the flag, and 170 have a national language anchored in their respective constitutions.
Moreover, she said, many countries enshrine their national values in their constitutional laws and some explicitly give the church official standing. Every dot and comma in the emerging legislation is important, she said, because “it will remain with us forever.”
Proponents of the bill point out that there are Basic Laws that say Israel is democratic, but none that say it is Jewish.
Dichter explained that discussions continued over the final wording of the legislation, including the phrases “Jewish and democratic state” and “Jewish state with a democratic regime.”
An additional debate will deal with the question of language, whether to write “Hebrew is the language of the state” and “the Arabic language has a special status in Israel,” which is the current wording, or that the bill is “without prejudice to the de facto status of Arabic.”
Dichter stressed that the bill will not hurt the Arab minority and “any other interpretation is completely wrong.”
The draft that passed the preliminary reading in the Knesset, in May, is likely to change significantly before the definitive version is adopted. Coalition partners have revisions they want incorporated and behind- the-scenes bartering is already under way.
The centrist Kulanu party, headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, will submit a compromise on the equality clause, which is expected to soften opposition to the bill from within the coalition.
The proposed compromise reads: “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people that is committed to the preservation of the rights of all its residents.”
Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, expressed concern that the proposed legislation may provide a tailwind for anti-Israel sentiment worldwide.
“If this is how Israel treats its own minority, what does it say about how majorities abroad should treat their Jewish minorities?” he said.
“This law may help those who hate Israel, who claim that the Jewish Zionist idea discriminates against minorities or is even racist. And I don’t want to mention the infamous UN resolution [from 1975 equating Zionism with racism] but this is giving ammunition to Israel haters. It’s a stupid and harmful proposal.”
Regardless of the bill’s final wording, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has already voiced support for MKs who oppose it, urging the Israeli government and citizens to consider what the proposed law may mean for peace in the region.