Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People
Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (Hebrew: חוק יסוד: ישראל - מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי), informally known as the Nation-State Bill or the Nationality Bill, is an Israeli Basic Law which specifies the nature of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The Law was adopted by Knesset 62 in favor, 55 against and two abstentions on 19 July 2018 (7th Av, 5778). The law is largely symbolic and declarative. It was met with sharp criticism internationally, including from several prominent Jewish-American organizations.
On 3 August 2011, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Avi Dichter, together with 39 other Knesset members, filed the Basic Law proposal: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People which seeks to determine the nature of the state of Israel as the Jewish people, and as such it interprets the term "Jewish and democratic state" which appears in the Israeli basic laws Freedom of Occupation and Human Dignity and Liberty.
On 12 July 2017, The House Committee of the Knesset approved the makeup of a special Joint committee, headed by MK Amir Ohana (from Likud party) to discuss and shape the Nation-State Bill. After 10 in-depth discussions regarding its articles, the committee approved the law for first reading on 13 March 2018. Chairman Ohana stated: "This is the law of all laws. It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel, which says that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people. That is the founding principle on which the state was established". Minister Yariv Levin, a strong backer of the proposal, called it “Zionism’s flagship bill... It will bring order, clarify what is taken for granted and put Israel back on the right path. A country that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people".
On 1 May 2018, the Knesset passed the Nation-State Bill with a majority of 64 voting in favor of the bill and 50 against in its first reading.
On 19 July 2018, after a stormy debate which lasted for hours, the Knesset approved the Nation-State Bill in second and third readings by a vote of 62 in favor, 55 against and two abstentions. Following the vote, members of the Joint List tore up a printed text of the law while calling out “Apartheid”. MKs from the coalition, on the other hand, applauded the passing of the legislation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the passage of the new law as “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel. We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens,” he said following the vote. “This is our state — the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag.”
MK Dichter, which sponsored the law said: "121 years ago the visionary of the state presented in Basel the proposal which is being raised today in the Knesset – a national home, the Jewish nation state. Two words that the visionary of the state could not say at the time were ‘Basic Law’, because there was no state back then... Ever since I began promoting the law, I was told that it was obvious, but the remarks of the Joint List could not be missed: ‘We will win – we were here before you, and we will be here after you.’ This law is the clearest answer to those who think this way. No minority will be able to change the state's symbols. This Basic Law does not harm the Arabic language or any minority – that's fake news. Israel is not a bilingual country; it never was. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and guarantees the majority without hurting the minority.”
Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin said: “This is a historic and defining moment in Israel’s history – a historic and significant law. I do not have any complaints to the Joint List, but I cannot accept the terrible [spiritual weakening] of parties which believe in the Zionist ethos. There are some parties which have historic rights in the establishment of the state yet do not support this law. The Zionist Union sits under the flag of the movement of the country’s founders, headed by [deceased] Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Members of the Labor Party, tell us here, honestly: “Do you disagree with the realization of the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel? Is it not our nation state? Is our flag unacceptable to you? The Labor movement has never turned its back in such a way to the basic values of the Zionist movement. This is a law which strengthens the Jewish identity of the state – the Aliyah and all the values thanks to which the State of Israel was established magnificently.”
MK Amir Ohana, chairman of the joint committee that legislated the bill said: “This moment will be remembered in the history of the Jewish nation. We are laying down one of the cornerstones of our existence… After 2,000 years of exile, we have a home.” Addressing members of the Arab factions, MK Ohana said, “Every minority prefers to be the majority, but you are asking to become the 22nd Arab state. We are one country that is surrounded by 21 nation states of the Arab people, which have the same language, the same nationality, the same religion and the same culture – and we have just one small country. Those who believe this law is racist are like those who think Zionism is racism".
According to the proposal, Israel would be defined as the nation state of the Jewish people, and the right to self-determination in Israel would be unique to the Jewish people. The proposal also stated that the state of Israel should establish ethnic communities where every resident can preserve their culture and heritage, that the Hebrew language would be considered the official language of the state of Israel (while granting the Arabic language a special status), that the Hebrew calendar would become the official calendar of the state of Israel, and that the Hebrew law would serve as an inspiration to Israeli legislators.
Content of the Basic LawEdit
The Basic Law comprises eleven clauses, as follows:
1 — Basic Principles
B. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
C. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
2 — Symbols of the State
A. The name of the state is “Israel.”
B. The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.
C. The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.
D. The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”
E. Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.
3 — Capital of the State
Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.
4 — Language
A. The state's language is Hebrew.
B. The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.
C. This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.
5 — Ingathering of the Exiles
6 — Connection to the Jewish people
A. The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people and of its citizens in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.
B. The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.
7 — Jewish Settlement
A. The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.
8 — Official Calendar
The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by law.
9 — Independence Day and Memorial Days
A. Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.
10 — Days of Rest and Sabbath
The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.
11 — Immutability
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Controversy has surrounded the law since it was first proposed in 2011. A Haaretz editorial asserted that the measure would cause severe harm to Israel's democracy and the rights of its minorities. A number of prominent Israeli political and academic figures, especially from the left of the political spectrum, such as Professor Amnon Rubinstein, were also critical.
The proposal has been criticized even by people affiliated with the Israeli Right, such as the Minister and Likud Party MK Benny Begin. Critics have argued that the proposed law raises difficult questions concerning the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and it may upset the delicate balance between the state's Jewish character and state's democratic character.
On 20 November 2011, a special discussion was held on the matter at the George Shultz Roundtable Forum which was sponsored by the Israeli Democracy Institute, and was attended by Avi Dichter and various Israeli public figures and prominent academic figures.
On the other hand, the Israeli researchers Dovi Hellman and Adi Arbel from the Institute for Zionist Strategies research institution re-published a position paper from July 2009 in which they expressed their support in the proposal. Professor Abraham Diskin also expressed a similar opinion.
Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, ardently defended his draft of the Nation-State bill on 26 November 2014. Netanyahu declared Israel to be “The nation-state of the Jewish people and the Jewish people alone.” He also clarified “I want a state of one nation: the Jewish nation-state, which includes non-Jews with equal rights.” Being the land of the Jewish people, the PM is of the opinion that Israel is thus entitled to principles that combine the nation and the state of the Jewish people and grant “equal rights for all its citizens, without discrimination against religion, race or sex.”
Dr. Aviad Bakshi, who was also a member in the IZS constitution team, published an article in which he stated that in practice Arabic is not the official language in Israel nowadays, and therefore the argument that the proposal would harm the status of the Arabic language is not valid.
Israeli MK Dr. Einat Wilf from the Independence party published an article supporting the proposal which argued the advantages as a "correct and balanced" proposal because the state of Israel was established for one purpose only and that is—to be the national home of the Jewish people. This is the essence and raison d'être.
Senior Fellow at Kohelet Policy Forum, Professor Eugene Kontorovich, published an article on the legitimacy of Israel's nation-state bill' in which he compares the bill proposition to that of other EU states, and declares Israel's bill to have “nothing racist, or even unusual, about having national or religious character reflected in constitutional commitments.” Professor Kontorovich proves that “Seven EU states have constitutional ‘nationhood’ provisions, which typically speak of the state as being the national home and locus of self-determination for the country's majority ethnic group.” To that end, he muses, “it is hard to understand why what works for them should be so widely denounced when it comes to Israel.”
In response to the criticism, Dichter stated that "the law proposal was created and designed for a year and a half, and that from the start the Jewish and democratic character of the state were balanced appropriately, and for this reason the proposal has gained the support from the entire political spectrum in Israel. 40 MKs have so far expressed their support in the bill proposal. Taking into account that 40 other MKs are ministers and deputy ministers can not express at this point their support of the bill proposal, this means that half of the Knesset members support the proposal. Moreover, after the bill proposal was submitted to the Knesset yesterday, additional lawmakers sought to express their support of the bill proposal".
In the response raised by MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and various other political regarding the declaration of the Hebrew language as the sole official language of the state, Dichter stated that the law enshrines the existing situation. Israel's official languages were defined by the British in 1922 - back then the official languages were English, Arabic and Hebrew, in that order. "Court rulings deal constantly with the permanent status of the language: the Hebrew language is defined as a language with a higher status than the Arabic language, and as the state's official language. Arabic on the other hand suffers from constant blurring of its status and lack of clarity about its accessibility to the native speakers of the language. According to the bill proposal the Arabic language would receive a special status which would require the state to enable accessibility to all native speakers of the language".
In an open letter, Reuven Rivlin, Israel's president raised his concern saying the legislation “could harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies”.
Knesset member Avi Dichter, the law's sponsor, stated, "We are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens." Responding to Arab legislators who objected to the proposed basic law, he said that "The most you can do is to live among us as a national minority that enjoys equal individual rights, but not equality as a national minority."
In an interview with Haaretz, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who supervised the passage of the law, said that "Through the law, we can prevent family reunification [of Israeli citizens and Palestinians] not only out of security motives, but also motivated to maintain the character of the country as the national homeland of the Jewish people." He also insisted to reject the inclusion of equality in the legislation to avoid undermining the Law of Return.
The secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Saeb Erekat, described it as a “dangerous and racist law” which “officially legalizes apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system”.
Heads of Israel's Druze community petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court in protest against the law and 100 Druze reservists complained that though having fought in Israel's wars for generations, the bill relegated them to second-class status.
The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land asked the government to rescind the law.
Israeli centrists and leftists denounce the law as anti-democratic and racist in that it does not give all citizens the same right. Opposition MPs likened the contentious law to apartheid. Mass protests have been held in Tel Aviv following the law, which critics labelled as racist towards the country's Arabs. In particular, many Arabs were angered by the law's downgrading of Arabic from an official language to one with an ambiguous "special status".
Benny Begin, son of the co-founder of the ruling party Likud Menachem Begin, expressed his concern about the direction of his party; in his opinion, it is moving a little further away from human rights. The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel said that the law "contains key elements of apartheid", which is not only immoral, but absolutely prohibited under international law". Adalah Director Hassan Jabareen said that the law would make Israel an exclusively Jewish country, which "made discrimination a constitutional value and made its attachment to favouring Jewish supremacy the reason for its institutions".
Shimon Stein and Moshe Zimmermann commented that the new law calls into question the equality of Arabs living in Israel concerning the loss of Arabic's status as an official language, adding that only the country's Jewish settlements and Jewish immigration are considered fundamental values. They noted that the first clause, which states "The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established," opens up a loophole for annexation of the West Bank and a goodbye to the two-state solution and democracy.
Backlash abroad has shown disapproval of the law by Jewish groups with the American Jewish Committee stating the law “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic”. Additionally, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said, “While there are provisions that we agree with — notably with regard to state symbols like the anthem, flag and capital Jerusalem; as well as in reaffirming that the State of Israel is open to Jewish immigration — we are troubled by the fact that the law, which celebrates the fundamental Jewish nature of the state, raises significant questions about the government’s long-term commitment to its pluralistic identity and democratic nature.”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu responded that the civil rights of every Israeli citizen is guaranteed in a series of Knesset laws, including Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, but the national rights of the Jewish people in Israel had not been enshrined by law until now. He also noted that "For dozens of years the opposition has preached to us that we need to withdraw to the 1967 lines to ensure that Israel will be the national home of the Jewish people where there will be a Jewish majority in the country. So now suddenly, when we legislate a law that does just that, they scream on the left". Regarding complaints by Druze citizens, Netanyahu said "In contrast to the outrageous comments from the left attacking the Jewish state, I was touched by the sentiments of our brothers and sisters in the Druze community," while assuring them that "there is nothing in this law that violates your rights as equal citizens of the State of Israel." Netanyahu added that he will continue meeting with Druze leaders to find solutions to their concerns. Initial meetings with Druze leaders fell apart, however, when Netanyahu walked out, after one Druze leader refused Netanyahu's demand that he take back his use of the term "apartheid" to refer to the law on social media. Some Druze participants suggested that Netanyahu had deliberately torpedoed the meeting when he saw that they would not endorse cosmetic changes to the law
A poll conducted by Panel Politics found that 58% of Israeli Jews support the law, 34% are against and 8% have no opinion (among 532 responses). The poll found more support among people who define themselves as right-wing or centrist, while leftists are more likely to oppose it. A survey, conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute and based on the replies of 600 Israelis, showed that the majority of the public, 59.6% of Jews and 72.5% of Arabs, believe that equality for all Israeli citizens should have been also covered by the law.
In response to the presence of Palestinian flags during a protest against the law in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said "there is no greater testament to the necessity of this law. We will continue to wave the Israeli flag and sing Hatikvah with great pride."
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- "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People". Knesset website. Archived from the original on 19 July 2018. (in English)
- Basic Law: Israel – The Nation-State of the Jewish people, translated by the proposer MK Avi Dichter (in English)
- Israel’s proposed Nation-State law: FAQ