Knesset Panel Backs Version of Nation-state Bill That Doesn’t Mention 'Democracy'

The bill would also permit Jewish-only communities, with critics in the Joint List of Arab parties saying the legislation is 'institutionalizing the apartheid regime'

Yariv Levin, Amir Ohana and Ayelet Shaked, members of a Knesset committee considering a bill defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, October 2017.
Emil salman

A Knesset committee considering a bill defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has approved a new version of the legislation, sending it to the full Knesset for the first of three votes needed to become law.

Opposition MKs objected to the deletion of text referring to democracy and the Declaration of Independence. Despite the objections, the bill’s sponsors say they hope the Knesset will vote in favor of the bill this week in the first of the three ballots.

The legislation is designed to lay the groundwork for the High Court of Justice to give preference to Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic values should the two conflict in the courts.

Before the committee vote, panel members from the governing coalition sparred with other coalition MKs — from Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox parties — but the religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox MKs eventually lent their support.

A Knesset vote in favor of the bill in the first vote would have let the legislative process resume where it left off if parliament were dissolved and new elections called, although early elections have been averted now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox parties on a draft-exemption bill.

Late Monday, members of the special Knesset committee received notice to be present at 9 A.M. Tuesday to debate the new version of the bill, which would be a Basic Law, one with constitutional status. In the new version, the word “democracy” does not appear. The bill also includes a clause allowing the establishment of residential communities for Jews alone.

In the new version, a clause was deleted that would have given the nation-state law precedence over all other laws, including other Basic Laws. At the request of MK Amir Ohana (Likud), a clause was also deleted that would have required the courts to look to Jewish law in cases where legal precedent or legislation did not provide sufficient guidance.

The new version is expected to give precedence, largely symbolic, to the status of the Hebrew language. The bill states: “Hebrew is the language of the country. The Arabic language has special status in the country. Its speakers have the right of [Arabic] language access to the services of the state. In practice, nothing in this clause shall do harm to the Arabic language’s status just prior to the enactment of this Basic Law.”

One of the bill’s sponsors, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of Likud, welcomed the committee’s approval. Referring to the Supreme Court’s more activist stance in recent decades, Levin called the committee vote “a historic step to correct the constitutional revolution that has harmed the Jewish status of the State of Israel.”

At the committee session, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) was highly critical of the bill’s new version. “It appears that the ultra-Orthodox are voting for a nation-state bill from which enshrining the Jewish state, Jewish law and the holy sites has been deleted, while the Arabic language has been given constitutional status,” he said. “It’s a bill that will only aid the constitutional revolution of the High Court of Justice — purely out of narrow political considerations over hysteria about moving up the election.”

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) told the committee: “Why does this law need to be passed now? What’s so urgent? The attorney general needs to intervene to bar passage of such a law during such a political period. It bothers me very much that people aren’t shocked by such legislation, which has a black flag flying over it.”

Addressing the bill’s sponsors, MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint List) said: “You are institutionalizing the apartheid regime in the most blatant way.”

Another opposition MK, Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) told the committee: “The coalition represents a portion of the Israeli public, not all of it. Such a nation-state bill needs to be adopted through dialogue with a majority of the public in the State of Israel.”

Referring to Israeli Arabs’ concerns about the legislation, she added: “One of our roles is to ensure that the Arab community also understands that when we speak of the Jewish nation-state, all its citizens have full equality, and in this regard, you have failed.”

One of the bill's sponsors, MK Avi Dichter (Likud), referred to the dropped provision that would have had the nation-state law override other legislation, including Basic Laws. “To reach understandings with Knesset members and also with [Knesset] factions, we understood that the override provision was creating a difficulty,” but the deletion does not make it weaker than other laws, he said.