This week, the Israeli Knesset passed into law a “nation-state bill” that for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” in its Basic Laws. The bill was passed with a 62-55 vote and two abstentions in the 120-member parliament.
Critics have described elements of the controversial bill as discriminatory, though the law’s sponsor, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee chairman Avi Dichter MK, has underlined that the rights of minorities will not be harmed by the law.
The Israeli government has reiterated that the law does not threaten Israel’s status as a democratic, pluralist society, which is protected by other Basic Laws. It affords the Arabic language special status in Israel’s constitution, and enshrines the religious holidays of minorities: a level of protection that did not previously exist.
Two controversial clauses in the bill were changed ahead of the vote, with a clause that could have permitted one religious group to bar another from living in their community replaced with one saying that “the state sees developing Jewish settlement as a national interest and will take steps to encourage, advance, and implement this interest”.
The new law is largely symbolic, codifying some of the wording of the Declaration of Independence as well as previous legislation and the policies of successive Israeli governments.
The law formalises existing policies and legislation, giving Israel’s fundamental attributes constitutional protection.
Supporters of the law have argued that the specific protection accorded to the Jewish people’s right to sovereignty in Israel is a reaction to increasing attempts to question and deny that right.
Previous international statements to recognise the right to Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel include the Balfour Declaration (1917), the Mandate of the League of Nations (1922), the UN General Assembly Resolution (1947), and the admission of Israel to the United Nations (1949).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the law’s passing as a “pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel”.
He said: “We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state – the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag”.