NGOs duel over proposed Basic Law to define Israel

Exclusive: Institute for Zionist Strategies says Arabic is not an official language according to Israeli law.

Avi Dichter 311 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Avi Dichter 311 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Two organizations are printing opposing position papers as Kadima MK Avi Dichter’s “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People” gains momentum.
Dichter’s bill gives constitutional status to the declaration that “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people for its self-determination according to its cultural and historical tradition.”
In addition, the bill says “the State of Israel has a democratic government.” It would also require the state to “act to preserve the cultural and historical tradition of the Jewish people,” by protecting holy sites, using the Hebrew calendar, and having Saturday and holidays as official days of rest, as well as using Jewish law as “a source of inspiration for the legislator.”
Following controversy over a line in the bill that defines Arabic as a language with “special status” as opposed to an official language, The Institute for Zionist Strategies gave The Jerusalem Post exclusive access to a position paper explaining that this would not change the current legal situation.
According to Dr. Aviad Bakshi, a lecturer on constitutional law at Bar-Ilan University, the official status Arabic was given during the British Mandate is not legally valid in the State of Israel. However, it has a special legal status, in that it is used in official situations in order to help a minority.
Bakshi claims that Arabic is given equal status to Hebrew in certain cases in order to “provide linguistic accessibility to government information,” but not “as a symbolic or cultural statement.”
According to Bakshi, an official language is one that is required in all government activities, such as courts, government offices and official publications, which is not always the case in Israel.
However, Hebrew is called the sole official language in other Israeli legislation. British Mandatory law is only applicable in cases when it does not contradict newer legislation. Since Arabic is not required in all instances according to Israeli law, the Mandatory law is no longer valid.
Essentially, Bakshi explained, Dichter’s bill would anchor an existing situation in legislation.
“Countries that have more than one official language are dual- or multi-national countries, which Israel is not,” Bakshi wrote. “The proposed law, which includes a legal right to linguistic accessibility in Arabic and a ‘special status,’ is far more than that which is granted to minorities in Western countries such as the US, France, Germany, Italy and other Western countries.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also plans to release a position paper on Dichter’s bill, from a different point of view.
“This bill has a number of serious problems,” ACRI Director of Policy Advocacy Debbie Gild-Hayo explained to the Post on Thursday.
“First, the it separates ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’ in its definition of the State of Israel, putting Jewish first,” Gild-Hayo said. “First it says that Jewish law should inspire legislators, and then it says there should be a democratic government.”
ACRI also protested what Gild-Hayo said the bill implies about Israel Arabs.
“Twenty percent of the state’s residents are becoming secondclass citizens. This bill highlights the low status of Arabs in Israel. Reducing Arabic from an official language to ‘special status’ is, by definition, lowering Israeli Arabs’ status,” she stated. Other problems with Dichter’s bill, according to Gild-Hayo, are that it allows towns to be separated by nationality, which would “annul all of the legislation on acceptance committees for closed communities.”
“This bill symbolizes that Arabs are in Israel because we’re doing them a favor, not because they deserve to be here,” she said. “This is a very problematic piece of legislation.”
Gild-Hayo also posited that Basic Laws, which serve as Israel’s constitution, should be proposed by the government, and not as private initiatives, which “are based on political reasons, and not on statewide consensus.”
However, Dichter’s bill has already been approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, and is expected to be put to a vote in the Knesset this month.
Dichter has repeatedly announced his intention to face off against Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in the party’s next primary.
Kadima sources say Livni opposes Dichter’s bill, but will allow party MKs to vote according their conscience. The bill has supporters in Kadima, as well as in the coalition.
The position paper can be found on the Institute for Zionist Strategies website.