Israeli Ministers Greenlight Nation-state Bill: Arabic Isn't an Official State Language

New nation-state bill holds that 'the right to realize self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people' ■ Softened bill doesn't subordinate democracy to the state's Jewish character

Waving flags during a march marking Jerusalem Day near Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2015.
A Jerusalem Day March outside Jerusalem's Old City May 17, 2015. Olivier Fitoussi

A cabinet committee on Sunday gave its support to a new version of the nation-state bill, which revokes Arabic's "official language" status, holds that the State of Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people,” and that “the right to realize self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

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The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted in favor of the bill, and it will now proceed to the Knesset floor for further readings before becoming law.

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The proposed law is meant to turn into a basic law and become part of Israel's central body of legislation, encoding the structure of government and civil rights.

In contrast to an earlier version, the new bill doesn’t subordinate democracy to the state’s Jewish character. The bill also states that “the national language is Hebrew” and downgrades Arabic's status to "a special status in the state," adding that "its speakers have the right to language-accessible state services.” The bill states that “every resident of Israel, without distinction of religion or national origin, is entitled to work to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity,” and that “the state may allow a community, including members of the same religion or national origin, to have separate communal settlements.”

The bill also proposes to enshrine in basic law the Admissions Committees Law that stipulates that "the state may allow communities, including the members of one religion or one nationality, to maintain separate communal settlement." It also states that "any resident of Israel, regardless of religion or nationality, is permitted to act to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity."

The acting head of the ministerial committee, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, said that "Today I decided to put an end to the foot-dragging and to affirm the nation-state law in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

"For too long, we've been trying to discuss and reach a decision regarding the law – a basic law that's not clear how it hasn’t been enshrined in legislation until now – and whose simple goal is to protect Israel's status as the state of the Jewish people," he said.

The bill recieved unanimous support in the committee. The vote was brought forward to the beginning of the committee meeting and not all of its members took part in it.

The Israel Democracy Institute sent ministers a critical review of the bill's wording and called on members not to approve it.

The authors of the review, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Dr. Amir Fuchs, wrote that the suggestion to legislate a basic law this way and not as part of a complete legislative procedure might upset the delicate balance between Israel's being a Jewish and democratic state.

Kremnitzer and Fuchs noted that the bill enshrines Jewish identity without other basic rights such as freedom of speech being enshrined in it. Moreover, laws that are enshrined in basic laws, such as the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, aren’t immune from change, and therefore the legal significance might be to give preference to the country's Jewish identity in its legislation.

According to them, the bill substantially harms the rights of the country's minorities. For example, the bill proposes to downgrade Arabic's status from an official language in Israel to one "with a special statues."

Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter, who sponsored the nation-state bill, called the approval of the proposed bill by the ministerial committee "a major step in establishing our identity" not only abroad but particularly among Israelis themselves. Referring to lyrics of the national anthem Hatikva, he said it reflects "being a free people in our land."

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked congratulated Dichter, the bill's sponsor, calling the legislation an important and necessary step in establishing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Meretz party leader Zehava Galon strongly criticized the bill and called it "a declaration of war against Israel's Arab citizens and against Israel as a democratic and properly governed society." She added: "Even in its 'softened' version, the bill seeks to define the country as a Jewish state, not alongside its being democratic but rather at its expense."

Reacting to the bill's backing by the ministerial committee, Arab Knesset member Esawi Freige of the opposition Meretz party said the committee's decision "again proves that for the current government, democracy is a swear word." Referring to the leader of France's far-right National Front, Marine Le Pen, Freige said the bill was Le Pen-style nationalism and populism "with nothing behind it."