Israel passes Jewish nation state law

Israel passed a contentious basic law on Thursday that anchors itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, promotes the development of Jewish communities and downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to one with a "special status".

By Isabel Kershner in Jerusalem
  • Published 20.07.18
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Prime Minister Netanyahu at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Thursday. (AFP)

Jerusalem: Israel passed a contentious basic law on Thursday that anchors itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, promotes the development of Jewish communities and downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to one with a "special status".

In essence, the law enshrines the Jewish people's exclusive right to self-determination in Israel, a move that was hailed by supporters as "historic" and denounced by detractors as discriminatory, racist and a blow to democracy.

The law is largely symbolic and declarative, but opponents say it harms the delicately balanced relationship between the country's Jewish majority and its Arab minority, which makes up about 21 percent of a population of nearly nine million.

The law, pushed through just before the Knesset, or parliament went into summer recess, has been advanced as a flagship measure of the most Right-wing and religious governing coalition in Israel's 70-year history.

It was enacted after a decade of political wrangling and hours of impassioned debate in parliament, and it is one of more than a dozen basic laws that are difficult to overturn and that, together, serve as the country's Constitution.

Since it was established, Israel has been grappling with the inherent tensions between its dual aspirations of being both Jewish and democratic.

"This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said soon after the vote early Thursday. "We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens."

But if the law was meant to give expression to Israel's national identity, it exposed and further divided an already deeply fractured society. It passed in the 120-seat Parliament by a vote of 62 to 55 with two abstentions. One member was absent.

Moments after the vote, Arab members of parliament ripped up copies of the bill while crying out, "Apartheid!" Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, which holds 13 seats and is the third-largest bloc in parliament, waved a black flag in protest. Members of the Right-wing governing coalition applauded.

"The end of democracy," declared Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Arab legislator, charging the government with demagogy. "The official beginning of fascism and apartheid. A black day (another black day)," he wrote on Twitter.

New York Times News Service