The 13th March 2018 saw the Israeli Knesset’s Justice Committee vote nine to seven to approve the Jewish Nation-State bill. The bill, which seeks to ensure the prioritization of the Jewish character of the state, threatens to sacrifice the basic rights of the country’s citizens to self-determination and freedom from discrimination.
At its core, the bill seeks to promote extreme ethno-nationalist objectives, reflecting the politics of Israel’s far-right. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked - one of the bills most prominent supporters - has called on the courts to promote nationalist aspirations and Jewish demographic primacy in its rulings. In late August at an Israel Bar Association Conference, she went so far as to call for the prioritization of nationalism over human and civil rights, declaring, “Zionism should not continue and will not continue to bow down to the system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way.” Likud MK Amir Ohana has stated that “It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel, which says that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people.” If passed, the Jewish Nation-State bill would inevitably threaten equality in Israel, rendering non-Jewish citizens – including its Arab minority – as secondary citizens of the state.
Where the bill does acknowledge Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, it does so indirectly, stating that “every resident, regardless of religion or nationality, may act to preserve his or her culture.” Note the intentional use of “resident” rather than “citizen.” Clearly, those who drafted the bill do not see the state’s non-Jewish “residents” as worthy of full citizenship. They also make this apparent in the section on self-determination, where the bill explicitly states that “the right to self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Noting the bill’s glaring exclusion of the Arab minority, MK Osama Sa’adi of the Arab Movement for Change in the Joint List criticized the bill as “one of the most dangerous laws in the delicate relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority. What is absent from the law is more severe than what it contains. This law excludes the Arab minority… from the first letter to the last, as though we do not even exist. And then people wonder why the Arab public is not loyal. You are pushing us against the wall. You are inserting the term democracy as lip service. Nothing is left of it.” MK Aida Touma-Sliman also decried the law, stating it would establish an apartheid state. She made reference to the current political turmoil surrounding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition, arguing that the last minute vote is a cynical political maneuver by his party, exploiting the instability of the rights of the Arab community in Israel as part of their legacy of racist election campaigning. Indeed, she reiterates that the “coalition doesn’t care what the attorney-general says... he says this is blatant discrimination – and no one cares.”
In an underreported, yet highly concerning clause, the bill also states that communities consisting of single religious or national backgrounds may separate communal settlements, thereby legalizing segregation based on religious and national difference. In practice, this will extend to ethnic and racial difference, as communities will generally not exclude secular Jews, but will rather apply the law to Arabs. In fact, Israeli law already leaves much room for self-segregation. In December 2012, the High Court ruled that “admissions committees” in small towns in the Negev and the Galilee have the right to screen potential residents based on their compatibility with the “social-cultural fabric of the town.” In other circumstances, rabbis have called on Jewish Israelis to refuse to sell or lease homes to non-Jews. Meanwhile, racial steering dominates the real-estate market.
Although the bill explicitly asserts that “the State of Israel is a democratic state, committed to human and civil rights,” it only does so conditionally. “At the same time, the State of Israel has a unique mission as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” As evidenced by the content of the bill, this mission involves effacing alternative historical, national, and religious narratives. It involves maintaining the demographic primacy of one ethnic group over others, even at the expense of human and civil rights. Finally, it involves the subjugation of ethnic minorities and their relegation to second-class citizenship. The bill also refuses to recognize right of Palestinian refugees to return as mandated by international law in UN General Assembly Resolution 194. Does this mission leave room for democracy?
The bill explicitly demotes the Arab language to an official language of Israel to one with ‘special status’. Its focus on Israel’s mission to “ingather the exiles” demonstrates a renewed commitment to restricting immigration to Jewish people only, and gives priority to the rights of Jewish citizens living abroad over those of its Palestinian citizens.
For the sake of the Arab minority in Israel, as well as the rest of the state’s minorities, the Mossawa Center calls on the Israeli public and members of the Knesset to call into question the compatibility of such an extreme entho-nationalist mission and democracy. Indeed, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s statement arguing for maintaining a Jewish majority “even at the price of violation of rights” for other non-Jewish citizens is a worrying indication of the Minister’s understanding of Jewish-democracy. Her connection of the Nation State bill with another Basic Law dealing with legislation proposes to allow the government to reverse any ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, even in the case of violating human rights. This development would give the highest level of legal power in Israel to the most far-right administration in its history, allowing them to violate human rights with impunity.
In December 2017 MEPs from the European Parliament submitted a question for a written answer to the Vice President and High Representative of the European Commission asking what additional action will be taken by the European External Action Service (EEAS) in response to the legislative developments proposed by the Jewish Nation-State Bill. Furthermore, it urges the EEAS to explain how it would respond to such a brazen disregard by Israel of Article 2 of the EU-Israel Association Agreement if the Bill were to pass.
This most recent vote of the Knesset’s Justice Committee represents the highest level of approval so far for the bill. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition majority threatens to crumble, with the closure of the Knesset and snap elections seemingly imminent, it is possible that the bill could be passed in a matter of weeks. If not passed, before the dissolution of the current government, the bill will be passed onto the next administration, which many polls suggest will again be led by Netanyahu.
We urge the international community to take a firm stance against this concerning intensification of ethno-nationalism in Israel. We likewise call on international state actors and representatives of international governing institutions to clearly warn Israeli state actors of the repercussions of refusing to uphold international law and commitments associated with bilateral and multilateral agreements, like the EU-Israel Association Agreement.
Above all, we ask that concerned individuals engage in critical contemplation regarding the meaning of democracy in all discussions relating to Israel, Palestine, and the Arab Palestinian minority.
For more information, please see our position paper here or contact [email protected]
You can also find a summary of your position paper in German here.