Israel's Jewish Nation-state Bill: A Primer

With sizable coalition factions threatening to vote against the bill when it comes to the Knesset, it is worth understanding what the fuss is all about.

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Israeli flag at the Western Wall.
Israeli flag at the Western Wall.Credit: Reuters

Few pieces of legislation have aroused as much passion in recent years as the proposed nation-state law.

With sizable coalition factions threatening to vote against the bill when it comes to the Knesset – thereby bringing down the government, in all likelihood – it is worth understanding what the fuss is all about.

The legislation, which was originally drafted by right-wing MK Ze'ev Elkin (Likud), is an attempt to resolve the tension between the country's dual Jewish and democratic character, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

It does that by defining Jewishness as the default nature of the state in any instance, legal or legislative, in which the state's Jewishness and its democratic aspirations clash.

The bill defines the State of Israel’s identity as "the nation-state of the Jewish people.” That not only means that the country's national holidays are Jewish religious holidays or that the flag is the Magen David; it also means that Jewish law will be the inspiration for Israel's legal system and it enshrines the automatic citizenship granted by the Law of Return.

Crucially, while the bill affirms “the personal rights of all [Israel's] citizens according to law,” it reserves communal rights for Jews only. In other words, individual Arabs are equal in the eyes of the law, but their communal rights are not recognized.

The bill, intended as a Basic Law, would create a nation-state not envisaged in the Declaration of Independence, which promised equality for all of Israel's citizens. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Elkin's original version went even further. It would have defined Hebrew as Israel’s only national language, reducing Arabic to secondary status, and it affirmed the importance of settlement throughout the country's borders — without defining what those borders were.

In order to make the new legislation more palatable to those who value the country's democracy, both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni have proposed watered-down versions of the bill. At this stage, it's not clear which version will be brought to vote in the Knesset plenum.

The nation-state law, if and when it is passed, will become one of the country's Basic Laws, which provide a foundation for the legal system in the absence of a constitution. Basic Laws can only be overturned by a special majority.

Proponents of the bill say that their intention is to anchor the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence and decades of praxis in law.

Opponents are concerned that it will further marginalize Israel's Arab minority and make it easier for discriminatory laws to pass the Knesset and stand up in court.

“Israel is a nation-state whose vision has three essential ingredients: Jewishness, democracy and human rights,” Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison wrote in a government-commissioned report on the bill that was released this week. “The nation-state law is likely to upset the essential balance of safeguarding the entire vision.”

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