International Law & Court News

Controversial law cements Israel’s status as a Jewish state

Arab lawmakers stand in protest during a Knesset session in Jerusalem on July 19, 2018. Israel's parliament approved controversial legislation on Thursday that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people but which critics warn sidelines minorities. (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi)

JERUSALEM (RNS) — In the wee hours of Thursday (July 19), Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a controversial nation-state law that explicitly defines Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people.”

The law passed 62-55 during a heated session that revealed deep divisions within Israeli society over the religious and democratic character of what many have long called the Jewish state.

First introduced in 2011 and amended many times before being approved, the law states that Jerusalem is Israel’s “united” capital. It also recognizes the Jewish Shabbat as the official day of rest while allowing non-Jews to observe their own Sabbath. Independence Day is now an official holiday, and Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day are recognized as days of mourning.

The law also codifies the parameters of long-used national symbols such as the Israeli flag and the menorah, the use of both the Jewish and Gregorian calendars and Israel’s relationship with diaspora Jews.

While much of the law merely cements day-to-day practices of life in Israel, it also breaks new and controversial ground.

It states that the Jewish people “have an exclusive right to national self-determination” in the country and makes Hebrew the only official language. Arabic will have “special” status but will no longer be an official language.

The clause on self-determination underscores Israel’s vow to never allow Palestinian descendants of refugees the ability to settle en masse. A large influx of non-Jews could eventually make Jews a minority in their own country, government officials say.

Hours before the final vote, lawmakers deleted a clause that would have authorized the creation of communities “composed of people having the same faith and nationality to the exclusive character of that community.”

Instead, it says, “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

Some believe the clause is discriminatory because it appears to promote the building of Jewish communities, but not necessarily West Bank settlements, at the expense of non-Jewish communities.

Supporters of the nation-state law said it merely recognizes the Jewish character of Israel, the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, and is a rebuke to the many countries and institutions — from the Iranian regime to UNESCO — that claim Jews are colonial invaders with no religious or historical ties to ancient or modern Israel.

“We engraved in the stone of law our language, our anthem and our flag. We have enshrined the fact that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Long live the state of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the law’s passage.

The National Council of Young Israel, an Orthodox American synagogue umbrella organization, also praised the law.

“While the democratic State of Israel facilitates freedom of religion and affords people of various backgrounds the right to visit and reside there, the reality is that Israel is inherently a Jewish state and affirming that fact does not contravene the liberties that it benevolently bestows to individuals of other faiths,” the group said in a statement.

Critics of the law say it fails to address democratic concerns and therefore discriminates against Israeli minority groups, including the country’s Arab community, which composes 21 percent of the population.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat tweeted from a Palestine Liberation Organization account that the law “officially legalizes apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system. … It denies the Arab citizens their right to self-determination to instead be determined by the Jewish population.”

Many Jews in Israel and abroad also criticized the law.

T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, said in a statement that the law “endangers Israeli democracy, legalizes discrimination against 20 percent of Israeli citizens, threatens religious pluralism and threatens the very future of Israel.”

The American Jewish Committee said it is “deeply disappointed” by the law, first because it “downgrades” Arabic and second because it promotes “Jewish settlement.”

The latter “could be read as a euphemism for the originally proposed endorsement of support for Jewish-only communities in Israel,” AJC said.

“We respectfully ask the Government of Israel to clarify these and other questionable elements of the bill, and to reaffirm the core principles and values that make up the very foundation of Israel’s vibrant and admired democracy,” AJC said.

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Michele Chabin

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  • Will this be the “straw that breaks the camels back”? I have felt for some time now that a “2 state” solution will never come about. After reading an article last week or earlier this week about maps that show that Palestinians have been squeezed out and isolated with Israel controlling most of the territory it seems that Israel has shown its true intent, that no one can miss or deny.

  • Nonsense. Look at a map of the British mandate. There is already a Palestinian state. It’s called Jordan.

  • Theocracy is always tyranny. The particular flavor–Muslim, Jewish, Christian–makes no difference.

  • What authority did Britain have to mandate anything? Britain made all sorts of promises to save its empire and itself in WW!. None of it meant anything. The French and British are the major sources of today’s problems in the middle east.

    How would you like it if a colonial power told you that you cannot no longer live on the land that your ancestors have lived on for a couple of millennium?

    If we want to go with the UN mandate, there would be almost a viable Palestine and Jerusalem would be an international city not governed by Palestine or Israel.

  • No it isn’t. There was no compensation for the Palestinians kicked off of their land. Until they are treated fairly Israel will never live in peace.

  • Jordan is a Hashemite kingdom and not representative of all the Palestinian people.

  • They Palestinians were not kicked out of Jordan, they’re still there under a government set up by the Brits. Are you equally concerned by the Jews who lost everything where they were forced to leave Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc?

  • No Jordan is a separate country just like Austria and Germany or Canada and the United States or Costa Rica and Panama. .

  • Will the Christians and Muslims be required to have crosses or crescents sown on their clothes?

    It is time the US stop sending money to Israel and save if so our citizens can have universal health care.

  • An Arab has every right to live on the very plot of land that his ancestors have had for centuries and not some place hundreds of miles away. He should not be forced to live in Jordan if he is from the Mediterranean coast of Jericho, or Jerusalem west or east All Palestinians should have the right to return to any part of Palestine

  • Jordan was part of the Palestine Mandate. Check your maps. It was not a separate country.

  • So you agree that Jews have every right to have remained in Baghdad, Tehran, etc. and that they should be compensated for their losses. I agree with the theory but that’s not how the world works. Just ask the Indians.

  • All the people kicked off their lands are dead.

    “Until they are treated fairly” is a mantra at this point.

  • “It denies the Arab citizens their right to self-determination to instead be determined by the Jewish population.”

    Just how does this new law do that? Does it deny Arab citizens their right to vote, to petition their government, to practice their religion?

  • No they are not all dead. Also their heirs are entitled to the estates of their parents.

  • The Palestine, Israel and Jordan should be merged into one state. All the states of the Middle East and Africa are colonial creations many include unnatural borders.

    In any event, the US should withdraw all financial and military support of Israel and any other Middle Eastern country that denies people their rights and continues warfare.

  • The merger of Palestine, Israel and Jordan would simply mean the creation of a 23rd Arab state and an end to Israel. The only state in the Middle East with actual free elections which include Arabs is Israel. Try to elect a new monarch in Jordan or Saudi Arabia. If you want to end warfare in the Middle East start with Yemen and Syria.

  • 1948. If they were 2 years old, they’d be 72.

    There are no estates, just as the American Indians have no estates in Manhattan.

    It was a sad situation with errors made on both sides, and I attribute a good portion of it – and the rest of the mess in the Middle East – to the Europeans after WWI drawing lines and placing labels on maps, but especially the British.

    Be that as it may be, the ship sailed, and the Palestinians have been unable to govern themselves to become a partner in anything.

  • By making them literally second class citizens based on their language, religion and ethnicity when compared to Jewish ones. This does not make Israel safer from Islamicism, it makes it a breeding ground for it.

  • Although I agree with the sentiment, we don’t send Israel money. We sell them military hardware, buy R&D and share IP with them.

  • No they don’t. Nobody has a right to land lost to them generations ago. 70 years after the fact means we are talking about people from Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and other Arab countries. Ancestry means nothing in the day of modern nation states.

    Right of Return was meant as an intentional dealbreaker in peace deals and a plan by Arafat back in the day to demographically destroy Israel.

  • No more than Irish Americans have a right to land they left in the 19th Century due to famine, evictions and conflict.

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