Fact-checking Netanyahu’s Claim That Israel Is the Nation-state of Jews Alone

As far back as 1996, the Supreme Court ruled there was no contradiction between Israel's identity as a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Gil Eliahu

A Jewish state or a state of all its citizens? Or maybe both? The never-ending debate over the nature of the State of Israel and its relationship with its non-Jewish minorities has again been in the headlines due to a social media exchange between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli television personality and actress Rotem Sela.

"When the hell will someone in this government broadcast to the public that Israel is a country for all its citizens?" Sela fumed. Netanyahu shot back: "An important correction: Israel is not the state of all of its citizens. According to the nation-state basic law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and of it alone."

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The exchange recalls an Israeli Supreme Court ruling handed down almost a quarter-century ago, in April 1996, a month before Netanyahu's first term as prime minister began. In its ruling, the court said there was no contradiction between Israel's character as "a state of all of its citizens" and as a Jewish state.

Israeli television personality and actress Rotem Sela.
Shai Yehezkel

In the run-up to the 1996 Knesset election, the writer and businessman Meron Izakson filed a petition challenging the appearance on the ballot of Ahmad Tibi's Ta'al party, the Arab Movement for Change. Izakson claimed that Ta'al was seeking to deny Israel's existence as a Jewish state and should therefore be barred from running because the party viewed Israel as "a state of all of its citizens."

The justices hearing the case were faced with a difficult question: whether a Jewish state could also be a "state of all its citizens" or whether the two definitions were contradictory. "Our view is that the determination that the State of Israel is 'a state of all its citizens' does not deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state," Justice Mishael Cheshin wrote in his ruling. It was obvious, Cheshin added, that the State of Israel, as a democratic country, is also the state of all its citizens.

"And if someone claims that the Israel is not a state of all of its citizens? Can it be argued that the State of Israel is a state of only a portion of its citizens?" Cheshin asked. "Indeed, equality among citizens is a basic principle of democracy." In his ruling, Cheshin also relied on Israel's Declaration of Independence, which defines Israel as a Jewish state "that will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all of its citizens."

Supreme Court Justice Mishael Cheshin, in a 2003 photo.
Lior Mizrahi/Baubau

"Indeed, all of its citizens," Cheshin said, "Jews and non-Jews are 'shareholders' in the country, and the statement that the state is 'a state of all its citizens' does not detract from the state's being a Jewish state, and, if you will, the state of the Jewish people.

"We should remember and know – how could we forget? – that the Jewish people did not have – did not have and doesn't have – another country other than the State of Israel," Cheshin said, "but within the country, all of the citizens of the state have equal rights. And in our view, it would not be right to rule that someone who says that the State of Israel is a 'state of all its citizens' is denying the existence of the state as a Jewish state, in and of itself."

Justice Zvi Tal, who was also on the panel that heard the case, was less adamant. He too supported permitting Ta'al to remain on the ballot. but explained his decision as being based on protection of the fundamental right to freedom of association. He also expressed concern, however, over the prospect that "a country of all of its citizens" not contradict Israel's identity as a Jewish state.

"[Izakson's] argument on the issue of the State of Israel as 'the state of all of its citizens' bothered me," Tal wrote. "It's purportedly such a simple and obvious axiom … but if that's the case, it raises the concern that [Tibi's Ta'al party] could attach far-reaching significance to such an innocent axiom, meaning that the country is a state of all of its citizens to such an extent that its Jewish character is overridden in favor of the opposing values and outlook of some of its citizens. That, apparently, is how [Ta'al] has understood things."

But Justice Tal made it clear that his concern would not be grounds for barring the Ta'al party from the ballot. "Disqualifying a fundamental right such as the right of association requires clear, unequivocal and convincing evidence ... and no such evidence has been presented."