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Israel passes controversial law that cements it as country for Jews

The Israeli flag (Wikimedia Commons)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Knesset passed controversial legislation making Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people,” angering groups in Israel and the Diaspora.

The so-called Nationality Law enshrines in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Law that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

It passed early Thursday morning after hours of contentious debate by a vote of 62-55, with two abstentions.

Much of the bill, sponsored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, deals with obvious signs that Israel is a Jewish state, such as affirming the symbols on the flag and shield, setting the Hebrew calendar as the country’s official calendar, recognizing Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, the national anthem and naming Jerusalem as the capital.

Other parts of the law, however, have raised the hackles of segments of Israeli society and the Jewish Diaspora. These include clauses relegating Arabic to a “special” status instead of an official language, promoting the establishment of Jewish communities throughout Israel and addressing the state’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

Netanyahu called the passing of the law “a defining moment.”

“We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence,” he said. “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state — the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to undermine this, to undercut our very existence. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language, anthem and flag.”

The chairman of the Arab Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, said in a statement that Israel has “declared it does not want us here,” meaning its Arab citizens, and that “we will always be second-class citizens.”

Non-Orthodox groups in North America are particularly concerned about a clause that defines Israel’s relationship to Jews abroad, but says nothing about Jewish diversity within Israel itself. Critics call that a capitulation to the haredi Orthodox parties in Israel, who do not want the state to accommodate the religious practices of non-Orthodox Jews.

The American Jewish Committee said it was “deeply disappointed” that the Knesset passed the law.

“That Israel is indeed the Jewish state and its main symbols, including the flag and national anthem, are distinctly Jewish, are well-established facts, which, in our view, as steadfast friends of Israel, make this kind of law unnecessary,” its statement said.

The organization noted the  “questionable elements” in the  legislation that it says will “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement called it “a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy.”

“The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic — and Jewish — nation is enormous,” he said while vowing to “deepen our engagement with Israel, using every means possible to promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all.”

The National Council of Young Israel, which represents the Orthodox synagogues of the Young Israel movement, praised the passage of the legislation.

“While the democratic State of Israel facilitates freedom of religion and affords people of various backgrounds the right to visit and reside there, the reality is that Israel is inherently a Jewish state and affirming that fact does not contravene the liberties that it benevolently bestows to individuals of other faiths,” the group said in a statement. “Passage of this bill was vital to ensure the continuity of the connection between the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and publicly pronouncing that Israel is the Nation State of the Jewish People is an essential legislative act that is long overdue.”

Prior to the vote, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, called the law a “weapon (for) our enemies.” Outgoing Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky said it would end up “driving a wedge between Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.” And thousands of Israeli protesters, Jewish and Arab, marched through Tel Aviv over the weekend to protest discriminatory aspects of the legislation.

The president of the Israel Democracy Institute, Yohannan Plesner, said the version that passed was much better than previous iterations but the law was “an unnecessary embarrassment to Israel.”

“Rather than celebrating 70 years of independence with an initiative to strengthen the Jewish and democratic values of the Jewish Nation State in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the Israeli Parliament today passed a law that is jingoistic and divisive,” Plesner said. “The new law threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora and fuel the campaign to delegitimize Israel.”

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