Israel’s hugely controversial “nation-state” law, explained

JERUSALEM — Israel passed a controversial new “nation-state law” last week that’s sparking both celebration and fierce debate over the very nature of Israel itself.

The law does three big things:

  1. It states that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.”
  2. It establishes Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and downgrades Arabic — a language widely spoken by Arab Israelis — to a “special status.”
  3. It establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” and mandates that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.”

Each of these statements would be contentious on its own, but taken together, they’re a clear, unequivocal statement of how the Jewish state’s current leaders see both the country and the diverse people who call it home.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government backed the legislation and was overjoyed at the law’s passing. Netanyahu lauded the law as “a defining moment in the history of the state” — a phrase that was splashed across the front pages of Israel Hayom, the country’s most-read newspaper, which is often described as Netanyahu’s Fox News for its favorable coverage of his government.

But for Israeli Arabs, who make up one-fifth of Israel’s 9 million citizens, the new law was a slap in the face. When the law passed, Arab parliamentary members ripped up copies of the bill and shouted, “Apartheid,” on the floor of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

Ayman Odeh, the leader of a coalition of primarily Arab parties currently in the opposition, said in a statement that Israel had “passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”

Palestinians, liberal American Jews, and many Israelis on the left also denounced the law as racist and undemocratic. Yohanan Plesner, the head of the nonpartisan Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, called the new law “jingoistic and divisive” and an “unnecessary embarrassment to Israel.”

But at the core of the new law is a deep, existential debate that Israelis have grappled with almost since the country’s founding: Can Israel be both a “Jewish state” that protects and celebrates Jewish identity, and a liberal democracy that protects the rights of all minorities, including non-Jews? Read more via VOX

Israel Passes a Law Stating What’s Jewish About a “Jewish and Democratic State”

n July 19th, the Knesset, led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, passed a new “basic law,” with the anodyne title of “Israel—The Nation-State of the Jewish People Law,” commonly called the nation-state law, or khok ha’leom (literally, “nation law”). In Israel, basic laws—this one is the fourteenth—are meant to have quasi-constitutional status, and the nation-state law purports to codify what’s Jewish about a “Jewish and democratic state.” In principle, this might have been a reasonable undertaking. Another basic law, the “Law of Human Dignity and Liberty,” enacted in 1992, purported to define what is democratic about a “Jewish and democratic state,” and it has since been applied by the Supreme Court to promote greater equality among Israeli citizens. In 2000, for example, the Supreme Court overrode an old regulation of the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Agency, which prohibited the sale of J.N.F. property to non-Jews, after a coöperative community called Katzir had invoked it to deny the sale of a home to an Arab family. In 2012, the court required the Knesset to rewrite the laws that ultra-Orthodox students have used to claim exemption from the nation’s military draft. The nation-state law might have built on the Law of Human Dignity and stipulated what, nevertheless, a democracy with a Jewish character looks like, adopting Hebrew as an official language, say, or formalizing the legal status of Jewish state symbols, the Jewish calendar, and the national anthem, “Hatikva,” or establishing Jewish holidays (including the Sabbath) as “days of rest”—all of which the nation-state law does.

The nation-state law, however, does not build on the Law of Human Dignity—rather, it takes that earlier law as a foil. In spite of (or, rather, because of) the size of Israel’s Arab minority, already twenty per cent of the population, and the fact that the Druze community—which numbers almost a hundred and fifty thousand—is subject to the draft, the nation-state law seeks to provide the Supreme Court with guidance to preëmpt further egalitarian menace. “There are places where the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish state must be maintained,” the justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, one of the law’s chief sponsors, said last winter, “and this sometimes comes at the expense of equality.” Read more via the New Yorker