Israeli Opposition Slams Nation-state Bill as 'Declaration of War Against Israel’s Arab'

While right praise bill, left and Israeli Arabs say draft law defining Israel as Jewish people’s national home and demoting status of Arabic as harms minority

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon in the Knesset, Feb. 14, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Responses by Israeli lawmakers to a key cabinet panel’s decision on Sunday to support a controversial bill that grants primacy to the communal rights of Jews and downgrades the official status of the Arabic language split predictably along party and ideological lines.

Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter, the sponsor of the version of the nation-state draft law that was adopted by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, called the decision “a major step in establishing” the Jewish identity of members of the faith in Israel and around the world.

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The committee’s vote puts the weight of the coalition government behind the bill, which states that “the right to realize self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” and demotes Arabic from being an official language of the state to being a language with “special status” in the state.

Joint List party leader MK Ayman Odeh at the 2015 Israel Conference on Peace.
David Bachar

“Instead of working to build a joint future for all of the country’s citizens, the government is working to destroy the standing of the Arab population and exclude their culture and language,” said Ayman Odeh. Odeh is the chairman of the opposition Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-dominated parties.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Likud) called the vote an important and necessary step in establishing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In contrast to an earlier version, Dichter’s bill doesn’t subordinate democracy to the state’s Jewish character, but it gives Hebrew the status of Israel’s national language.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the acting chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and a party colleague of Shaked’s, decried what he described as the “foot-dragging” surrounding previous attempts to pass a version of the bill.

“It’s not clear how it hasn’t been made into a law already,” Levin said, adding that its “simple goal is to protect Israel’s status as the state of the Jewish people.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.
Gidon Sharon / GPO

Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon called the bill “a declaration of war against Israel’s Arab citizens and against Israel as a democratic and properly governed society.” Even in its “softened” version, said the head of the left-wing opposition party, “the bill seeks to define the country as a Jewish state, not alongside its being democratic but rather at its expense.” MK Esawi Freige, also of Meretz, said the bill’s approval “proves once more that to the current government, ‘democracy’ is a swear word.”

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) called the bill “apartheid at its finest,” arguing that it would give Jewish privilege in Israel over the state’s Arab minority the force of constitutional law. If the bill is enacted, it would become a basic law, joining the central body of legislation that is the equivalent of Israel’s constitution.

“Israel cannot claim to be a democratic state [if its] statute books contain a law explicitly guaranteeing greater rights to Jews,” for example through its definition of the state, its symbols and its official language,” Jabareen said. He added that Israel should define itself as a democratic, multicultural state in which “its two national groups, Jews and Arabs,” have a right to self-determination.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, called the bill unnecessary, saying it “does not contribute anything to the Jewish and democratic identity of the State of Israel, which is well-enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and other basic laws.