Israeli Minister Says State Laws Are Already Democratic, but Not Jewish Enough

In first Knesset committee meeting on contested nation-state bill, opposition says legislation is a result of a 'lack of self-confidence'

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, June 13, 2017.
Oren Ben Hakoon

The purpose of the nation-state bill is to codify Jewish values into Israeli law, which already does so for democratic values, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the first meeting of an ad hoc Knesset committee formed to discuss the proposed nation-state law, Shaked said, “Israel is Jewish and democratic. I believe these two values are parallel, neither is above the other.”

“The state’s democratic values are already enshrined in a Basic Law,” she continued. “I think we have a great opportunity to also enshrine our national and Jewish values. The fact that the state is democratic doesn’t contradict its being Jewish.”

She added that the principles of the nation-state bill can be found in hundreds of other countries’ constitutions.

But despite Shaked’s statements, the language of the bill approved by the cabinet, as Haaretz has reported, would require the courts to prioritize Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one if the two clash. The bill also states that Jewish law should serve as a source of inspiration for legislators in drafting laws and for judges in interpreting them.

In addition, the bill is expected to give Hebrew a higher status than Arabic, though the exact wording of this provision hasn’t been finalized.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was supposed to attend Wednesday’s meeting, canceled at the last minute. But the discussion was in any case only symbolic, since Knesset legal advisor Eli Yinon had previously barred the government from bringing the bill to a vote on Wednesday. The Knesset’s summer recess begins on July 30, and Yinon said this doesn’t leave enough time for the thorough debate such a far-reaching bill requires if it is to withstand a challenge in the High Court of Justice.

Yinon’s position, which was adopted by coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) last week, means the bill’s passage will be delayed for at least three months, until the winter session begins. Nevertheless, Wednesday’s debate was vocal and tense, with numerous opposition members denouncing the bill.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who chaired the ministerial task force that drafted the final version of the bill on the basis of a more radical version proposed by MK Avi Dichter (Likud), defended the legislation.

“This bill is here to state the obvious, that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he told the committee. “Ever since the enactment of the Basic Laws, which gave expression to the very important principle that Israel is a democratic state with human rights and civil rights, a situation of imbalance has been created, in which the state is silent on its Jewish identity but gives expression to other rights.”

But opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said the bill is “playing with fire.”

“The state doesn’t need to define itself over and over and over due to a lack of self-confidence,” he said, adding that the law is superfluous and “desecrates” the “sacred” principle of “full equality of rights. The Declaration of Independence urges Arabs to take part in building the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship. Dichter doesn’t understand the significance of repulsing the Arab and Druze minority in such a blatant and powerful way.”

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Arab parties’ Joint List, said, “It’s clear the entire legal code will bow to Israel’s Jewish identity. This is a super-law among Israel’s Basic Laws. But no apartheid law will erase the fact that there are two peoples in this homeland. And a large portion of those two peoples will fight this government and get rid of it.”