The Nationality Law, or nation-state bill, is a Basic Law that, for the first time, establishes in law Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people.” The bill includes state symbols, like the flag and national anthem; the official language; national holidays; the Sabbath; the capital as Jerusalem; relations with the Diaspora; and Jewish settlements. The bill can help interpret and shape future legislation.
“Although the law can, in theory, be altered or repealed by a future Knesset, changes would require a majority of 61 members, as opposed to a regular majority of members present, as is the case for regular laws,” according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
So many around the world have given their opinions of the nation-state bill as undermining Israel’s stance on democracy. I would tend to agree that there are a lot of warranted concerns. Still, I believe that it is premature to fight this law all together, and, more important, to work on defining it.
I have three main areas of concern about this new law that I believe need to be addressed to maintain the balance of democracy within the State of Israel.
The first is the standing of non-Jews, especially Arab-Israelis. The bill has downgraded the Arabic language from the second official language to just holding a “special status.” This bill also states that Israel will act to “encourage and promote” Jewish settlements around the country. Without going into detail about my own opinion on the settlements, I feel that this clause in the bill should be better-defined.
Secondly, the nation-state bill defines Israel’s core purpose as a sanctuary for Jews all over the world, the location for gathering of exiles, and guarantor of Jewish safety and security. Although there is a clause in the bill that encourages Israel to “act within the Diaspora” to strengthen its connection to other Jews, it doesn’t specifically suggest the same importance within Israel.
Thirdly, there is nothing written into the nation-state bill that addresses equality. The need to guarantee minority rights is a commitment found in almost all democratic nation-states’ constitutions and other core legislations. Israel’s Declaration of Independence contains a guarantee of this sort. But the bill omits any mention of Israel’s democratic character.
We reached out to the Israel Democracy Institute for a reaction to the nation-state bill, and IDI President Yohanan Plesner responded, “Although the version that passed is much better than previous iterations, the nation-state law is an unnecessary embarrassment to Israel. Rather than celebrating 70 years of independence with an initiative to strengthen the Jewish and democratic values of the Jewish nation state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) today passed a law that is jingoistic and divisive. The new law threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora and fuel the campaign to delegitimize Israel. It will fall to future leaders to rectify the damage and return Israel to the Zionist vision that for 70 years has guided Israel’s vitality, dynamism, and international reputation.”
Source: The Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), www.en.idi.org.il, is an independent center of research and action dedicated to strengthening the foundations of Israeli democracy.