Israeli Knesset passes 'Jewish nation-state' bill

Sunday, July 22, 2018

On Thursday, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed the "Jewish nation-state" bill granting Israel the status of "national home of the Jewish people". Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it "a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel".

The bill was passed at 3 AM with 62–55 majority. Two lawmakers abstained. The bill declared Hebrew as the only official language and demoted Arabic from national language to a "special status" language. Netanyahu said, "An absolute majority wants to ensure our state's Jewish characters for generations to come." Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein said this bill, which received just 51.66% votes in favour out of the full Knesset of 120, was "one of the most important laws ever to be passed by the Knesset".

The Knesset began the voting on Wednesday. Previously, the bill had clauses declaring the state as a Jewish-only community as well as direction for judiciary courts to consider Jewish values over democratic values. Both of the clauses were challenged by the Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and the Attorney General. The latter clause about Jewish values for courts was dropped in May; the other clause was eventually dropped, and the final draft of the bill was approved on Monday. The bill was first introduced in 2011 by the right-wing Likud party.

The latest draft of the bill said the Hebrew calendar is to be the official calendar of the state. It also read, "Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established" and "the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation." Israel is home to about 1.8 million Palestinians, who account for roughly 20% of the national population. The bill also declared Jerusalem, in its entirety, as the capital of Israel.

The bill received negative reception from a number of people. The Arab Joint List multi-party alliance called it "anti-democratic, colonialist, racist, and with clear characteristics of apartheid." Calling it a "shameful night", Meretz Party's Tamar Zandberg said it was a "debased and tainted law". The Joint List's Ahmad Tibi questioned, "Why are you afraid of the Arabic language?".

Last week, Netanyahu said, "We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel's democracy but the majority also has the rights and the majority decides". Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a US-based Jewish Organisation, said the bill "was born in sin, its only purpose is to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens. Two months ago we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, where it was written that the State of Israel 'will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender.' Today Netanyahu's government is trying to ignore those words and the values that they represent."