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Jewish Nation-State Bill Stirs Backlash, But Lawmakers Defend Israel’s Right to Exist
(Photo by Pool/Israeli Prime Ministry Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Jewish Nation-State Bill Stirs Backlash, But Lawmakers Defend Israel’s Right to Exist

Israeli-Arabs feel discriminated against after their language is demoted

After hours of heated debate in its parliament, Israel was officially declared the state of the Jewish people.

The controversial Nation-State Bill, which was passed last Thursday in a vote of 62-55 with two abstentions, also declared Hebrew as the only official language, ranking it above Arabic, which has for decades been recognized equally.

In response, Arab lawmakers erupted in protest. One ripped up the printed text of the bill in front of the speaker’s podium while another waved a black flag.

“Since the recognition of the State of Israel 70 years ago, it was conditioned on the need that Israel and Palestine should be a bilingual state,” Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, Co-executive Director of the Abraham Fund Initiative, an Arab-Jewish NGO, told The Media Line. “They didn’t do us a favor by officially giving us our Arabic language before. It was an international community solution.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected the backlash and reiterated his belief that the new law merely codifies what is already widely accepted as a given. “We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people which respects the individual rights of all its citizens.… In recent years,” he continued, “there have been some who have attempted to place this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: this is our nation, language and flag.”

According to Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an International Relations lecturer at Tel Aviv University, the new law still grants Arabic “special status,” meaning that “because it is the language of 20 percent of the population, Arabic is recognized and protected.”

Navon explained that Israel was a nation-state just like others throughout the world such as France and Germany where the French speak French and the Germans speak German. Israel, he said, only sought to define its national identity quasi-constitutionally.

The most contested clause in the bill, which would have allowed the establishment of communities based on religion and nationality, was replaced at the last minute. The new provision reads: “The state sees developing Jewish settlements as a national interest and will take steps to encourage, advance and implement this interest.”

Lawmakers amended the bill after legal advisers warned that a clause sanctioning housing based on ethnicity and religion was discriminatory and could paint Israel negatively in the international arena.

“It will place Israel in a delicate situation with its allies in the U.S., the EU and Canada, etc.,” the Abraham Fund Initiative’s Abu Ras said. “They could not possibly support such a racist law when Israel is supposed to be a democratic country.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu has consistently pushed the importance of the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state in any peace agreement, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insists that having recognized the State of Israel is sufficient and that he will never acknowledge it as anything more.

While Israeli-Arabs make up about one-fifth of the country’s population of nine million, they complain of discrimination in education, health and housing, despite having equal rights under the law.

Yossi Mekelberg, Professor of International Relations at Regent’s University in London, contended to The Media Line that Arabs living in Israel have never been under the illusion of being equal. “This [law] is something to send them a clear message. It tells them directly that they are not equal citizens,” he said.

Moreover, Mekelberg believes that the bill is a religious-nationalistic strategy to increase power among ultra-Orthodox Jews. “It is my fear that secularism is becoming smaller and more marginalized,” he said.

“We will ask for assistance in Israel’s Supreme Court,” Abu Ras revealed in reference to a possible push to have the law overturned. “If that does not work, then we will reach out to the international community.”

Tel Aviv University’s Navon pointed out that Jews’ right to self-determination was still being challenged internationally and domestically. He said that until the passing of the Nation-State Bill, the country’s highest court had no constitutional basis to reject petitions that contest Israel’s Jewishness.

(Nola Valente is a student intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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