Israeli MKs approve controversial Nation State bill in late-night Knesset session

Legislation recognises Israel as 'historic homeland of the Jewish people' and relegates the official status of the Arabic language


A controversial bill recognising Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people — described as Benjamin Netanyahu’s signature law — overcame filibusters in the Knesset and become law in the early hours of Thursday morning.

62 MKs voted in favour of the legislation, which says “the expression of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people”, while 55 opposed it.

One Likud and one independent member chose to abstain.

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Speaking moments after the bill passed into law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "This is a defining moment – long live the State of Israel."

He added: "122 years after Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens."

But angry Arab MKs tore up copies of the law in protest and were removed from the chamber.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said Israel "declared it does not want us here" and had "passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citiziens." Haaretz reported.

Mr Netanyahu's critics had said the law statement is not necessary, as its headline statement was already affirmed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. They said the prime minister had three years in the current Knesset session to pass the law and is pushing it now ahead of his election campaign next year.

An earlier draft of the bill legitimised the establishment of communities for one religious or ethnic group — a move both the opposition parties and the government’s own legal advisors warned could be discriminatory as it would allow Jewish communities to exclude non-Jews.

But Mr Netanyahu agreed to modify this clause. It will now say that “the state sees in the development of Jewish settlements a national value and will act to encourage and advance it.”

It is unclear what effect the law will have. Although it will be a basic law, granting it quasi-constitutional status, it contains mainly declarative provisions and is unlikely to have a real effect on governance or judicial affairs within the country.

Some opposition MKs attacked the law for emphasising only the Jewish character of Israel without mention of democracy or equality.

Others criticised its exclusionary language: one provision says Hebrew is the “state’s language” while Arabic, the mother-tongue of 20 per cent of the population, is relegated from official to “special status”.

Some coalition partners also had misgivings — particularly Strictly Orthodox parties, which are concerned the bill does not grant a status to Orthodoxy and could therefore be used to legitimise progressive streams of Judaism.

They were expected to ultimately vote for the law after extracting concessions from Mr Netanyahu, including voting down an amendment that would have allowed same-sex couples to have children with surrogate mothers. The Prime Minister had publicly expressed his support for the amendment only at the beginning of the week.

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