Israel's Contentious Nation-state Law: Everything You Need to Know

The law is significantly softer than the original legislation and is mostly symbolic

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Arab lawmakers throw copies of the nation-state law in the Knesset, July 19, 2018.
Arab lawmakers throw copies of the nation-state law in the Knesset, July 19, 2018. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Why was the nation-state law necessary?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to have the bill passed to enshrine the concept that “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people” as a basic law, meaning one that has quasi-constitutional status. The prime minister has also demanded that the Palestinian Authorityacknowledge this aspect of Israel’s character as a condition for a future peace agreement with it.

The new law, which was passed by the Knesset early Thursday morning, is also designed to alter the application of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty in court rulings, and permit judges to give priority to Israel’s Jewish character in their rulings. The government coalition tried to get a more sweeping version of the nation-state bill passed, which would have brought about more significant change.

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Before the text of the bill was softened, the bill would have conferred prime standing to the country’s Jewish national values and subordinate its democratic values to them. In addition, the original version included a provision that would have permitted thecreation of Jewish-only communities, but that was significantly modulated. In May, another controversial provision, which would have had courts refer to traditional Jewish religious law, halakha, on matters that existing law does not address, was dropped.

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In the end, the law that was passed enshrines a collection of declarations regarding the country’s commitment to its citizens and to Jews in the Diaspora, regarding the status of Israeli Arabs and with regard to state symbols. The words “democracy and “equality” do not appear at all in the law.

How have we managed up to now without the law?

The nation-state law is mainly a symbolic measure designed to enshrine national values in a basic law. Most of its provisions were already on the law books and have been restated in the new law from existing legislation. The appearance of the Israeli flag, the national anthem “Hatikva” and the state symbol were already the subject of a law from 1949. The provision declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was incorporated in full from the Basic Law on Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel. And the section on reference by the courts to Jewish religious law, which was ultimately dropped, already appears in the law on the foundations of the legal system.

How will the law affect the lives of Israelis?

There is nothing in the nation-state law that was passed that involves provisions subject to practical application, so its impact will now be up to the Israeli government and the policies that it adopts in the spirit of the law. The new legislation could provide support for a series of controversial government decisions.

For example, because, at the demand of the ultra-Orthodox parties, the nation-state law calls for the state to maintain the ties with Jews in the Diaspora but does not mention a similar commitment within Israel, so the government could evade carrying out plans for the pluralist Jewish prayer area at the Western Wall.

Another possibility is that the new law could spur revival of the campaign to boost the Jewish population of the Negev and Galilee by establishing communities with a Jewish character, based on the nation-state law’s provision that the state “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will work to encourage and advance its establishment and consolidation.”

Could the law bar Arab Israelis from living in Jewish locales?

No. The version that would have permitted the establishment of Jewish-only communities was deleted from the final legislation. Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri said this week that the final version would not prevent Arabs from buying homes or living in communities planned for Jews, but he noted that the final bill does have a provision that would make it possible to provide incentives for constructing communities with a clearly Jewish character.

“It will not be possible to create a city and designate it as a ‘Jewish city,’” Nizri said, “but if public buildings are constructed, they will be for synagogues and not mosques. That doesn’t mean that an Israeli Arab will be barred from buying a home in the new city.”

In practice, how will the status of the Arabic language be affected?

As a practical matter, the nation-state law provides that there will be no change whatsoever in the existing status of Arabic. Therefore the obligation to post signs that include Arabic will remain and government documents will continue to be issued in Arabic. The law provides that Hebrew is the “state language” and confers a lower “special status” on Arabic, and also states that regulations on its use in state institutions will be provided for in subsequent legislation.

Knesset members from the predominantly Arab Joint List faction said the final version of the law harms their efforts to boost the status of Arabic and to advance legislation that would require that television broadcasts and movies be subtitled in Arabic.

How will the provision of the nation-state law declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital affect the city?

The clause states that the “whole and united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” In practice, this won’t change the status of the city or its neighborhoods or how the Education Ministry or Jerusalem municipality relate to Arab neighborhoods.

Could the law do harm to Israel’s international standing?

The international community and Diaspora Jewsapplied heavy pressure on Israel not to pass the original version of the bill, saying that it would harm minorities as well as ties with American Jewry and Jewish communities in other countries. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit considered the possible harm to Israel’s standing and the final version was considerably toned down at his request.



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