What is Israel's Nation State law?

Israel has passed a law that recognises the country as the historic homeland for the Jewish people, Nathan Jeffay considers whether it fulfils Israel's destiny or alienates the few


Affirming Israel’s Jewish status is not new, is it?

No. In May 1948, the founders of the state gathered to “declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

These are the words of the Declaration of Independence, which they signed.

What has happened now?

The Declaration of Independence set a deadline of October 1948 for Israel to adopt a constitution — we are still waiting for it, so it is rather overdue.

Instead of a full constitution, a series of “basic laws” have been passed on key topics.

The new legislation is the “basic law” dealing with what it means to have a Jewish state.

And what does it say?

It summarises Jewish connections to the historical land, and says that the State of Israel constitutes Jewish “national self-determination”.

It defines the language, symbols, calendar and rest days of the state as tied to Jewish heritage, and sets memorial days.

It states that Jerusalem, “complete and united”, is the capital. And then there are the more controversial elements.

One is about Arabic, yes?

Yes, the law downgrades Arabic by stripping it of its status as an official language. Instead, Arabic now “has a special status in the state”.

The politicians behind the bill believe that in a Jewish state that revived Hebrew, this language should be on a pedestal and not share its status with another.

The official recognition of Arabic dates back to the days of the British mandate and these MKs think things should change to reflect Jewish independence.

But Arabs and many Jewish Israeli critics are furious, saying it is a move that brings no benefits, and insults Arabs.

Rather than finding a greater place in Israeli multiculturalism, they say it sends the message that the Arabic language, a central part of Arab culture, is being elbowed out.

It gives the impression, they add, that celebrating Israel’s achievements in Jewish culture must come at the expense of its achievements in honouring Arab culture.

What about the clause on “residential areas”?

An earlier draft of the bill set out to allow Jewish-only or Arab-only neighbourhoods.

This was changed after widespread outcry, including from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin.

The language that passed says the state “views the development of Jewish residential areas as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”

While some on the right hope that this will stand up in court to allow all-Jewish neighbourhoods, it is unlikely they would get it past judges.

This is mainly a declarative clause, according to Yedidia Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute.

But there could be practical ramifications, he added, if it is used to argue that the government should be allowed to allocate extra investment to mostly-Jewish areas.

What does the law say about the diaspora?

It says that Israel has the backs of diaspora Jews in times of trouble, and will preserve Jewish heritage in the diaspora.

The controversy stems from the fact that it says that Israel “shall act within the diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.”

There is some upset that this section does not work in reverse, allowing the diaspora to strengthen its interpretations of Judaism within Israel itself.

This omission seems to stem from objections of Strictly Orthodox politicians who do not want to grant exposure in Israel to non-Orthodox movements that dominate American Jewry.

Are there other causes of upset?

Yes, there is a lot of upset about what the law omits, as well as what it includes.

It is widely claimed that any document defining what it means to have a Jewish state should not just avoid offending the non-Jewish minority, but actually make a point of demonstrating a Jewish state does not undermine their rights.

Some Israelis reject this criticism, saying that democracy and equality are enshrined in other documents. But critics say that these values should be stressed in this law — and that by omitting them, the law alienates Arabs.

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