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Making Israel’s Jewish status the law: Why it matters

Israeli flags standing next to the Israeli state symbol in the Knesset, Nov. 6, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli flags standing next to the Israeli state symbol in the Knesset, Nov. 6, 2014. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — On Sunday, Israel’s Cabinet advanced a bill in a 14-6 vote that if passed by the Knesset would enshrine into law Israel’s status as a Jewish state. The nation-state law, as the controversial measure is being called, has sparked a crisis in Israel’s coalition, with center-left parties voting against it and threatening to break up the government if it passes.

Following the threats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed a full Knesset vote on the bill for one week.
With Arab-Jewish tensions running high in Israel, supporters of the bill say it will reinforce Israel’s Jewish character. Opponents fear the bill will undermine the status of Israel’s Arab minority and stoke the flames of the conflict.

Here is what you need to know about the bill and its prospects:

What is the nation-state law?

The bill makes clear that Israel is the state of the Jews or, in the words of the bill, “defines the State of Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” Among other things, it means that Jewish law should inspire its legal system and that Israel’s national holidays will be the Jewish holidays plus Independence and Memorial Day. The bill affirms that the country’s national anthem is “Hatikvah” and that its flag is the blue-and-white star-and-stripes. For good measure, the bill also affirms the Law of Return, which gives automatic citizenship to any Jew who wants it.

Some of the bill’s sections already are law. But the nation-state law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which like a constitution guide Israel’s legal system and are more difficult than regular laws to repeal.

Two drafts of the nation-state law have been proposed recently by right-wing lawmakers. The one advanced by the cabinet Sunday is a version formulated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office aimed at compromise. The earlier version also would have defined Hebrew as Israel’s sole national language, giving Arabic a secondary status, and affirmed the importance of settlement throughout Israel’s borders — a term that was not defined.

Everyone knows Israel is a Jewish state. Why is the nation-state law necessary?

Supporters say it’s because Israel’s Jewishness has never really been made into law.

Judaism is mentioned throughout the country’s laws and religious authorities control some ceremonies, like marriage. But the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions like the Knesset, the courts or the presidency, and Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character. The nation-state law, proponents say, will place Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing.

“Although there is wide agreement in the Israeli public regarding the State of Israel’s definition as a Jewish state, the characteristics of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people were never anchored in the state’s foundational laws,” Likud Knesset member Zeev Elkin wrote in the earlier version, which he drafted.

Netanyahu has long demanded that the Palestinian leadership recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something it has refused to do. Elkin wrote that the law “is doubly important especially in times when some seek to negate the right of the Jewish people to a national home in its land.”

Why is the bill so controversial?

Opponents of the bill worry that it will prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democracy.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence defines it as a Jewish and democratic state, a dual mandate that has sometimes been a tough balancing act. Opponents worry that the bill will further alienate Israeli Arabs, who make up about a fifth of the population, fomenting discord in Israel and giving ammunition to Israel’s detractors.

In particular, some Israeli legal scholars oppose sections of the bill that say legislation should be inspired by Jewish law and that courts should look to Jewish law in cases where civil law provides no clear answer.

“Israel is a nation-state whose vision has three essential ingredients: Jewishness, democracy and human rights,” Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison wrote in a government-commissioned report on the bill that was released last week. “The nation-state law is likely to upset the essential balance of safeguarding the entire vision.”
If the bill becomes law, what concrete changes would follow?

None, really.

The bill aims to set out general principles and safeguard existing legislation, so it doesn’t create any new laws. But because it would be a Basic Law, its principles would guide the rest of Israel’s legal system.

Amir Fuchs, the head of the Defending Democratic Values project at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in Jerusalem, says the law will make it easier for discriminatory laws to pass Knesset and stand up in court.

“The goal here is to change the balance from where we have too much democracy, too much liberty and not enough Judaism,” he said, explaining supporters’ views. “If you want to pass a law that discriminates against Arabs, now you can claim that the [Arab-Israeli] demographic threat [to a Jewish majority] justifies the law.”

How has the government addressed the concerns? Will the bill pass?

Supporters of the bill say opponents are mischaracterizing it. They note that the measure explicitly refers to Israel’s democratic character and affirms “the personal rights of all its citizens according to law.”

Unlike the Elkin version, which Justice Minister Tzipi Livni came out against last week, the Netanyahu version has stronger language protecting democracy, and removes the portions on Jewish settlement and the primacy of Hebrew. But despite the changes, Netanyahu’s center-left partners say the bill will still hurt Israel’s democratic character.

“We are not to opposed to a National Law because this is a Jewish state and it should remain a Jewish state,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, said in a statement Sunday. “But it must also be a democratic state. The current national law is a bad law which is badly worded.”