Backgrounder: The Jews-Only “Nation-State” Bill - New Israel Fund Australia

Backgrounder: The Jews-Only “Nation-State” Bill

The Netanyahu government is working at a fever pitch to try to pass the “Nation-State” Bill before the end of the Knesset’s summer session on July 22.

UPDATE: You can see the final version of the law, which stripped out some language from earlier drafts, here.

This bill is a proposal to create a new Basic Law. Laws and policies that violate the Basic Laws are considered to be unconstitutional in the Israeli system.

The bill strongly favors Jews and Judaism over others living in Israel, in contrast to the guarantees of equality articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. As currently drafted, it would establish mechanisms to legalise discrimination in land and housing policies and would undo Israeli court precedents that barred discrimination along religious, ethnic, gender, and socio-economic lines. It would also downgrade Arabic to no longer be an official language in Israel, as it is now, to a language with a “special status.”

Two committee sessions were held on the bill in one week, on July 10th and 12th. Another is scheduled for Sunday the 15th. If the bill is approved by the committee then, it could be voted on by the entire Knesset as early as Monday, July 16th.

New Israel Fund (US) CEO Daniel Sokatch has called the bill “tribalism at its worst” and has pointed out that “it is a slap in the face to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Sunday’s discussion will be held by a special committee established to review this bill and to ensure that it can pass through committee. Under normal rules, the bill would be reviewed by the Constitution Committee, but MK Benny Begin – who holds one of Likud’s seats on the Constitution Committee – is strongly opposed to the bill. If he were to vote against it, the coalition would not be guaranteed a majority in committee.

Key Anti-Democratic Provisions:

  • Nowhere in the legislation is Israel identified as a democracy.
  • The bill could undercut the principle of the right of every citizen to equal protection under the law. Israel’s High Court has inferred that such a right exists based on previous basic laws, but provisions of this bill that contradict that right might upend those decisions.
  • The bill explicitly establishes the government’s right to create and enforce segregated towns on the basis of religion and nationality. While this clause seems to be aimed at allowing Jewish-majority towns to discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel, many Israelis fear that this clause may also justify discrimination against others, such as Mizrahi Jews and Russian-speakers who have faced discrimination in land and housing policies in the past.
  • The bill establishes a right for upholding every resident’s “heritage.” Legal observers believe that this clause would legalize discrimination against women, LGBT Israelis, and others, if those rights conflict with a claim of “heritage.” This is because many traditional interpretations of religion and culture — including in Israel — are sexist and homophobic. Legal precedents that have allowed women into combat roles in the IDF or that have kept women from being forced to sit on the back of public buses would be jeopardized.
  • The bill downgrades Arabic from an official language to a language with a “special status.”

Other Significant Provisions:

  • The bill establishes that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and that the right to national self-determination within the state of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people. This clause is inconsistent with Israel’s Declaration of Independence which promised “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
  • The bill gives constitutional force to a number of symbols of Israel (the flag, the emblem).
  • The bill establishes that the “entire and united” Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.
  • The bill establishes a responsibility for Israel to the welfare of Jews outside of Israel. The current draft changed earlier language that related to Jews “everywhere” such that it now speaks of Jews “in the diaspora.” This change was intended to deny any obligation by the State to recognize Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Jewish movements within Israel.

Possible Amendments:

  • Jewish-only towns:Clause 7B, which explicitly authorizes discrimination in housing polices based on religion and nationality, has come under the harshest public criticism, most notably by President Rivlin. The coalition may seek to alter this language to a formula which implies that the government can discriminate against non-Jews but which does not say so as explicitly as the current language does.
  • The status of the Arabic language: There has been a great deal of debate about whether it is necessary to change the status of Arabic in Israel, and, if so, what guarantees to ensure that Arab speakers can access services in Arabic are appropriate.
  • The status of non-Orthodox Judaism within Israel: As mentioned above, a recent amendment has downgraded the responsibility of the state to the Jews who are not Orthodox. More debate on this provision, and its implications, is possible.
  • The role of Jewish law: Earlier drafts had established that Jewish religious law would be among the considerations of the Israeli judicial system. While this clause was recently removed, the Jewish Home has been publicly calling for this to be reinstated. One possibility is that new language will be introduced defining the state of Israel as religiously inspired.

Additional Resources: