Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Is Israel the Jewish State? Not According to Its Own Laws

  • Arabs, liberal groups say legislation could be discriminatory
  • To pass the Knesset, bill would need ultra-Orthodox support

For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that a key obstacle to peace is the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. There’s only one problem: Netanyahu hasn’t even gotten his own government to define the state that way.

Now, a bill enshrining Israel’s Jewish character in law has passed a tense, preliminary parliament vote, in which three Arab Knesset members had to be escorted out of the hall. Avi Dichter, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has been pushing the bill as a Basic Law since 2011, but it may face an uphill battle in parliament.

Avi Dichter

Photographer: Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

“Netanyahu says time and again the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” Dichter said in an interview from his Knesset office. “But you cannot pressure them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state when you yourself haven’t done it.”

The bill, which defines the State of Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people,” is controversial among the country’s Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. It also could anger Palestinians, just as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to reignite the peace process.

Palestinian Complaints

Palestinian Authority officials refuse Netanyahu’s demand to recognize Israel as the Jewish state as part of peace talks, saying it’s not their responsibility to decide Israel’s basic character. But P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas also objects to Dichter’s bill, which Palestinians believe could be used to deny the “right of return” to Israel they demand for millions of Arab refugees and their descendants. 

Israeli Arabs and some liberal Jews warn the bill would relegate non-Jews to second-class status. Arabic would no longer be considered a national language alongside Hebrew, though it would still enjoy a special status under Dichter’s proposal. Liberals fear Israel’s conservative government increasingly is taking steps to prioritize the state’s Jewish character over its democratic one.

“This extreme-right government is trying to spread a fire of nationalist hatred, but I still believe there’s a majority here that wants to live in peace,” said Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-dominated parties in the parliament. “Instead of acting to build a collaborative future for all, the government is acting to destroy the status of the Arab population and to exclude their culture.”

Basic Laws

Israel’s declaration of independence mentions the country’s Jewish character more than a dozen times. Lacking a constitution, Israel has 11 Basic Laws that underpin its legal system, touching on everything from Jerusalem to parliament to democracy, but they don’t clearly articulate the state’s Jewish character. That’s why supporters say Dichter’s bill is necessary: Among other things, the bill would reiterate the Jewish people’s connection to the state.

The biggest problem with the bill is that it would force the Supreme Court to place Israel’s Jewish character above other considerations, according to Yedidia Stern, vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute. The bill would be more palatable if amended to stress Israel’s Jewish character in conjunction with equality for all citizens, he said.

“This might be the most important piece of legislation among all Israeli laws, because it gives the judges eyeglasses and tells them to view everything in light of this law,” Stern said.

That’s a key reason opposition politicians reject the bill. Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, said he’ll vote against the bill even though he wants to bolster the country’s identity as a Jewish state. Lapid supports an alternative version he said “is not insulting to the Arab citizens of Israel and is not considered to be a conflict-seeking bill.” And religious parties may seek to block the bill unless it’s part of a broader political deal, Dichter said, citing conversations with ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians.

The bill’s supporters says opposition parties simply want to thwart the government’s agenda. At a Cabinet meeting in late May, Netanyahu called to accelerate the legislation’s passage, saying “there is no contradiction at all between this bill and equal rights for all citizens of Israel.”

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