Knesset - Michal Fattal - 18072011
A vote in Israel's Knesset. Illustrative. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Forty lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition Wednesday submitted a proposal to the Knesset for a new Basic Law that would change the accepted definition of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."

The bill, initiated by MKs Avi Dichter (Kadima ), Zeev Elkin (Likud ) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), and supported by 20 of the 28 Kadima MKs, would make democratic rule subservient to the state's definition as "the national home for the Jewish people."

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The legislation, a private member's bill, won support from Labor, Atzamaut, Yisrael Beiteinu and National Union lawmakers.

Sources at the Knesset say the law currently has broad support, and they believe it will be passed during the Knesset's winter session.

According to Elkin, the law is intended to give the courts reasoning that supports "the state as the Jewish nation state in ruling in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character."

Elkin said: "The courts deal with this issue quite a lot, such as with the Law of Return as a discriminatory law."

The bill redefines basic consensus regarding the character of the state. For example, it also proposes that Hebrew would be the only official language in Israel, as opposed to the present situation - based on current mandatory law, Arabic and English are also recognized as official languages.

The bill accords Arabic "special status," and states that Arabic speakers "have the right to linguistic access to the services of the state, as determined by law."

Jewish inspiration

Another clause states that Jewish law will be a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts.

This would mean that MKs would be asked to legislate in the spirit of Jewish law, and courts to adjudicate by it in cases where no other express law exists. In the language of the bill: "If the court sees a legal question requiring a ruling, and finds no solution in legislation, custom or clear analogy, it will rule in light of the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace in Jewish heritage."

The bill also calls on the state to "act to ingather the exiles of Israel and [further] Jewish settlement within it, and allocate resources to this end."

As for other ethnic groups in Israel, according to the bill: "The state is permitted to allow a community, including people of another faith or nation, to maintain a separate community."

Elkin says he is not concerned over the implications of the bill for the image of Israel internationally. "If we were talking about the world in which the United Nations equates Zionism with racism, there might be a problem. But today the world is ready to accept this," he said.

As opposed to other Basic Laws, this one can only be changed by passing another Basic Law in its stead.

The bill was formulated on the initiative of, and jointly with, the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a conservative think tank.

Elkin and Rotem have supported a number of controversial pieces of legislation presented during the Knesset summer session. They include the successfully-passed Boycott Law, which calls for economic sanctions on people who boycott West Bank settlements; and laws restricting the activities of associations that oppose the existence of Israel and requiring political groups to reveal sources of funding they received from foreign countries.

In response, Kadima said that the proposed law is a private member's bill submitted by MK Avi Dichter and not by a faction. Like every other bill, this one will also be discussed by the faction, which will then decide its position on it.