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Jewish Nation-State Bill Continues to Spark Controversy

Arab Citizens of Israel Say Bill Institutionalizes Discrimination

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he is determined to bring the controversial Jewish nation-state bill to a vote, despite opposition from both outside Israel and within the country that could lead to new elections. The bill defines Israel’s identity as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” meaning that, in a clash, the Jewish nature of the state would win out over the democratic nature of Israel.

Defenders of the bill say it is nothing new.

“Israel has always defined itself as a Jewish and a democratic state,” Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told The Media Line. “This is stated clearly in our Declaration of Independence. We have already codified and anchored into our constitutional law the democratic part of the equation enshrining the rights of all of Israel’s citizens under the law. The Prime Minister believes it is similarly important to anchor the first part — that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people.”

Supporters of the bill, who are mostly on the right of the political spectrum in Israel, say that the bill aims to fight efforts to strip Israel of its Jewish identity and character by calling for Israel to become the “state of all its citizens.”

“As a teacher, I see that the future generation is growing up without any idea of the Jewish character of the state,” Bat Zion Susskind, a teacher and a member of a Knesset steering committee that fights against the delegitmization of the state. “Israel is the only Jewish state and it is threatened with physical and cultural annihilation. This law tries to prevent the situation from getting worse.”

But detractors say that the move discriminates against Arab citizens of Israel, who are more than 20 percent of the total citizens of Israel. Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, who comes from the same Likud party as Netanyahu, had harsh words for the bill.

 “The Declaration of Independence, in its depth and greatness, bound together two components of the state as Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish.” The two terms cannot be separated, he said, adding that he opposes the bill.

Hundreds of Israelis, mostly on the left, demonstrated outside Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem last night against the law.

“I feel like this law is going to make Israel a state only for Jews,” Amita Jarmon, a peace activist who attended the demonstration said. “We already know it’s a Jewish state. Israel must have equal social and political rights for all of its citizens.”

The law has also sparked talk in Israel of new elections. Two of Netanyahu’s coalition partners including the largest partner Yesh Atid, have threatened to quit the government which would most likely lead to new elections, if the law goes through. Netanyahu has said he is not afraid of new elections, and there is growing speculation that they will be held in coming months.

Some Israeli analysts said the law is meant to counter an Israeli Supreme Court which has dovish tendencies. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of Palestinian plaintiffs, including forcing the state to change the route of the barrier that Israel is building in and around the West Bank to keep out Palestinian attackers. The Jewish-state law would force the Supreme Court to favor the Jewishness of the state of Israel over the democratic character in its decisions.

Some Israeli analysts who agree that the court is too left-leaning nevertheless oppose the nation state law.

“There would have been no law if our court system had not tilted so far to the left,” Amiel Ungar, an Israeli writer and commentator told The Media Line. “But instead of going after the real problem, they tried to compensate by going on a detour. I don’t believe in political declaration – I would rather see creating concrete facts on the ground.”

Netanyahu has been under pressure from his right-wing coalition partners. Some analysts say this law is simply meant for Netanyahu to shore up his right wing. At the same time, there has been no official text of the law published.

“Is he saying, “I’m raising the stakes on Jewish nationalism and that is more important to me than democracy?” asked Gil Troy, a visiting professor of politics at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. “If so, you’re offending everyone from the center to the left. Netanyahu has a moral obligation to say what he’s doing.”