Israeli Lawmakers Back Contentious Jewish Nation-state Bill in Heated Preliminary Vote

After Knesset debate, 48 vote for bill and 41 vote against

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the Knesset summer session, May 8, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the Knesset summer session, May 8, 2017. Olivier Fitoussi

The new version of the nation-state bill has passed the first stage of enactment into law.

On Wednesday, the bill passed its preliminary Knesset reading when 48 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and 41 opposed it after a heated debate. Three Joint Arab List MKs were expelled for disrupting the debate.

The controversial bill holds that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people” and that the right to realize self-determination in the state is unique to them. It further revokes Arabic as an official language, though “its speakers have the right to language-accessible state services.” The bill does not subordinate democracy to the state’s Jewish character, as did an earlier version. 

If the nation-state bill is enacted, it would become a basic law, joining the central body of legislation equivalent to a constitution.

Earlier, Zeev Elkin, who was representing the government in the Knesset debate on this bill, objected to the article requiring judges to consult halakha (Jewish religious law) in cases where existing law has no solutions. 

After the vote, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked announced the government is to present a new version that will be more acceptable to all coalition members within two months.

The discussion on the nation-state bill was raucous. MKs Hanin Zouabi and Abd Al Hakeem Haj Yahya were expelled after being called to order three times. MK Jamal Zahalka was forced out after he tore up a printed version of the bill while calling out, "apartheid law."   

During the discussion, Dichter said that he was hearing disinformation, “as though truth is just a recommendation. You know that the bill explicitly states that Hebrew is the national language and Arabic will have special status. We dropped the phrase ‘mandatory,’” Dichter said.  

There were both coalition and opposition members who supported the original version of the bill proposed in 2011, which was more complicated, Dichter said. “We made changes in it to expand the basis of supporters,” he stressed.

Elkin had been among its original sponsors back when and said that he heard the yelling about “Apartheid state,” but, he said, “I think you’re confused. It may have escaped your notice but back in 1947, the UN decided to set up a Jewish state here. That may not be to the liking of some of the people here. I understand the frustration.”

The members of the Joint Arab List aren’t likely to calm down, Elkin went on. “All they do in this house [of parliament] is to undermine the most basic foundation of the Jewish people," he said. "This basic law will prove to you yet again that the words of the Declaration of Independence and the UN resolution are what is going to be.”

Elkin also took a cynical swipe at Yoel Hasson of Hatnua, a co-signatory on the original version of the bill as a Kadima party member who is among the more verbal opponents of the current proposal. “The bill has been softened since then. What changed?” Elkin sneered. He then turned his attention to opponents in general and said: “Give me one line that bothers you. Much of what appears here already appears in the state’s law books.”

“This is a black day,” said MK Masud Ganaim of the Joint Arab List of the vote. “I asked myself why the prime minister behaves like a teenager saying, ‘Me, me, me, my identity, my identity’. You’re starting your election campaign. You’re showing the world that you were the one who demonstrated that this state, this country, would be Jewish and threw up another obstacle in case Trump or somebody else brings peace.”

He added: “How can this government bring a law that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, while the argument is still going on among Jewish communities about who is a Jew. Such hypocrisy. Such chutzpah. You have no definition of what a Jew is.”

Ganaim charged that the bill's goal is clearly to diminish the right of native-born Palestinians to Israel. “It is natural that people who want to see themselves as masters of this land fear the Arabic language, because it says, the land speaks Arabic,” he said.

Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beitenu), a co-sponsor of the bill, commented: “Israel is the home of the Jewish people and certainly, its national state. This is the best answer to all those lunatic organizations trying to rewrite history and cast doubt on our historic right to our land and its eternal capital, Jerusalem.”

Among the opponents is Dov Khenin, who said the bill crossed another red line. “To blur the real argument, whch is this government’s opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state, they drum up an argument over the State of Israel, and do it by way of badly damaging minority rights and the status of Arabic."

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, noted that no law could hide the fact that two peoples live in Israel and accused the government of trying to foment hate. “I still believe there is a majority here who wants to live in peace, equality and democracy,” Odeh said. 

Shuli Moalem of Habayit Hayehudi, another of the law’s sponsors, rebutted that the opposition of the Arab Knesset members is clear. “They don’t want two states for two peoples," she asserted. "They want three for one people, in Gaza, the West Bank and inside the Green Line. Israel must buttress its identity, its status and its symbols, especially given the challenges both in the world and within the Knesset. This law should have been in the law books a long time ago.”

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted in favor of the bill on Sunday. Avi Dichter (Likud), the sponsor of the new version of the bill, called the decision on Sunday "a major step in establishing" the Jewish identity of members of the faith in Israel and around the world.

The bill was blasted by Israel's opposition and Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon called the bill "a declaration of war against Israel’s Arab citizens and against Israel as a democratic and properly governed society."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the bill, saying, "there is no contradiction between the law and equal rights for all of Israel's citizens."