Israel's Contentious 'Nation-state Bill' Passes First of Three Knesset Votes

64 Knesset members voted for the bill and 50 against. The proposed law is not expected to advance any further in the present Knesset

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin speaking at the first reading of the nation-state bill in the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 30, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israel's contentious "Jewish nation-state bill" passed the first of three votes in the Knesset early Tuesday morning, with 64 Knesset members voting for the bill and 50 opposing it. The proposed legislation will now be sent to a special Knesset committee.

The Knesset passed a relatively “softer” version of the law without the section that supported subordinating Israel’s democratic values to its identity as a Jewish state. The word “democracy” was removed from this version of the controversial bill. This change is expected to foil the legislation’s original purpose, which was to subjugate High Court of Justice rulings such that so-called Jewish national or traditional values could take precedence over democratic values.

Another section of the bill approved in the late-night session is intended to allow establishment of communities for Jews only, even though representatives of the attorney general’s office and the Knesset’s legal department have deemed such a move discriminatory and unconstitutional.

One clause that had been removed from the latest version of the bill called for subordination of all Israeli laws, including the Basic Laws which function as the state’s quasi-constitution, to the provisions of the nation-state law itself.

The coalition parties had agreed before the vote on Tuesday that the present version of the law will be shelved, and most likely will not advance to the second and third votes during the parliament's present session, because of opposition from Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties. However, because the proposal won backing in the initial vote, the government coalition established after the next election could continue to advance the law to those next stages without having to start the legislative process from the beginning.

"Anyone who does not belong to the Jewish nation cannot define the State of Israel as his nation-state," said MK Avi Dichter (Likud), one of the sponsors of the law, at the beginning of the debate in the Knesset.

"The Palestinians will not be able to define Israel as their nation-state. The nation-state law is the insurance policy we are leaving for the next generation," he added.

For his part, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said that the proposed law "expresses in the purest way [Theodor] Herzl's vision that the State of Israel is first and foremost the nation-state of the Jewish people."

The law would also give the Hebrew language privileged status over Arabic, although this is mainly a symbolic distinction.

“Hebrew is the language of the state," according to the wording of the bill. "Arabic has a special status, its speakers have the right to language-accessible state services. In practice, nothing in this clause shall do harm to the Arabic language’s status prior to the enactment of this Basic Law."

However, a legal expert who examined the proposed law told Haaretz that as opposed to statements by the bill's sponsors, granting Arabic “special status” instead of status as an official language would reduce the presence of Arabic in the public domain.