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A bill that would outlaw membership in an organization with racist objectives passed its first legislative hurdle yesterday.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Commitee approved the bill, proposed by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism). From there it goes to the Knesset plenum for its first reading.

The bill originally dealt only with Nazi and neo-Nazi activity, but its final version is likely to block far-right Jewish groups as well.

Existing law bans incitement to racism, and political parties running for Knesset can be banned for racist activity, but racist gatherings remain legal.

Gafni submitted the bill after a neo-Nazi gang was uncovered in Petah Tikva, amid increasing activity by skinheads in Israel. In committee, it was merged with a government-sponsored bill proposing that racist gatherings be banned.

If passed, the law will entail changing the penal code. Someone convicted of membership in an organization aimed at overturning the authorities, or toppling the government by force, destroying government property or undertaking seditious action already faces up to a year in prison. The bill would impose a similar punishment on members of a group "that in its constitution or its publicity or in another way and in an organized fashion advocates, incites or encourages racism, including advocating, inciting or encouraging... the principles of the Nazis or the Nazi movement."

MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) plans to request that the reference to racism be struck from the bill, leaving only the ban on Nazi organizations. Rotem said that in Israel it is customary to distinguish between Nazism and regular racism and that it would have been appropriate to put the two in separate clauses; since he cannot do so, he wants to maintain only the reference to Nazi organizations.

Committee chairman MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) said the bill underwent many changes before reaching its current state and that the decision to ban both neo-Nazism and general racism led to a balanced result.

"The proposals came a long way from the original formulations, which called for the citizenship of Israeli citizens [convicted of involvement in Nazi activities] to be revoked," he said.