Explained: The Controversial Bill That Would Allow Jewish-only Communities in Israel

Right-wing politicians have spent half a decade trying to pass a ‘nation-state’ bill that would prioritize Israel’s Jewish nature over its democratic one. Even President Rivlin thinks the law could harm Jews worldwide

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 24, 2018. Netanyahu is determined to pass the nation-state bill before the Knesset heads for its summer recess.
Marc Israel Sellem

Israel has always understood itself to be a Jewish state. But for the past five years, politicians – specifically those on the right – have been pushing for legislation that would make that fact irrefutable, strengthening their ability to incorporate the country’s Jewish national and religious character into government policy.

This proposed nation-state bill would be a Basic Law, which means it would have constitutional-like status. Israel’s lack of a constitution has led to the creation of a series of such “Basic Laws,” which the courts are meant to recognize as articulating the underlying principles of the state.

However, due to internal wrangling over the wording of the law, the nation-state bill has enjoyed a legislative roller-coaster ride since its original conception back in 2013.

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Israel's hardline nation-state bill

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated repeatedly that the passage of such a law is one of his top priorities, and is hoping to get the bill passed before the Knesset breaks for its summer recess next week. Yet he has failed to achieve a consensus among the parties in his last two coalition governments, and Habayit Hayehudi and United Torah Judaism have both raised objections to parts of the latest version.

“Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, and for the sake of creating a balance and resisting those who challenge, I am determined to advance my version of the nation-state law,” Netanyahu said in 2014, as various factions battled over different versions of the bill. “Over the years, a distinct imbalance has been created between the Jewish element and the democratic one. There is an imbalance between individual rights and national rights in Israel,” he added.

From the outset, human rights organizations and political figures on the left have decried the proposed law as antidemocratic, arguing that even in its mildest version, it legitimizes giving Jews and the Jewish religion preferential treatment and denying full and equal rights to the country’s non-Jewish citizens.

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Its harshest critics, meanwhile, have said the law prepares the legal ground for a one-state solution and the annexation of the West Bank.

In its the most recent version, figures ranging from left-wing activists to the Israeli president have joined the battle against preventing its passage in its current form.

The clause that has upset them most would explicitly allow the establishment of communities that are segregated by religion or nationality, giving discrimination an official stamp of approval. The clause in the bill declares that “the state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, December 2017.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Some fear that enshrining this principle in law could not only lead to discrimination against Arabs and other non-Jews, but could also be interpreted as permitting discrimination against groups within the Jewish population.

President Reuven Rivlin has slammed clause 7B, warning in a letter that it “could harm the Jewish people and Jews around the world and in Israel, and could even be used by our enemies as a weapon.”

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The Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, and Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri have both also come out against the clause, with Nizri explaining that the law would enshrine “personal discrimination against a citizen based only on his nationality.” And Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said “there is no place for such a clause in its present form.”

Eyal Zandberg from the Attorney General’s Office has said the clause “is blatant discrimination” and that “this means the residents selection committee can hang up a sign saying ‘No entry to non-Jews.’”

'Arabic was never an official language in Israel'Haaretz

There are other controversial clauses in the proposed law that are also proving problematic: Hebrew will be the official language of the state, with the status of Arabic being reduced from an “official” to “special” language. Another clause would instruct judges to look for precedents from Jewish legal rulings in instances where Israeli law offers no guidance.