The law states that Israel is ‘the national home of the Jewish people’ and only Jews have a right to national self-determination within the country’s borders. Moreover, the law declares Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and Hebrew the only official language, thereby downgrading the status of Arabic.
The law is controversial for a multitude of reasons.
First, over 20 per cent of Israel’s population is Arab. Many Arabs, who already feel like second-class citizens, have long fought to redefine Israel as ‘a state for all its people’. The new law is primarily intended to counter such demands, said Avi Dichter, a Member of the Knesset for the Likud party and one of the law’s main sponsors.
Israel’s Arab neighbours universally condemned the law, calling it discriminatory and racist as well as being an obstacle to peace. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, called on the international community to intervene. Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian diplomat, went further, accusing Israel of officially adopting an apartheid system.
Another point of contention is the provision in the law that reads: ‘The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation’. Although this is a watered-down version of the original language, the vague wording could serve to legitimize Jewish-only communities, opponents warn.
Others argue that the law is effectively entrenching Jewish identity while undermining democracy. Specifically, the law omits any mention of equality. This runs counter to the country’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which promises ‘complete equality of social and political rights for all [Israel’s] inhabitants’, regardless of their religion, race or gender.
The only point on which both proponents and critics of the law agree is that its passing marks a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
Israel has sought to establish its identity as a Jewish and a democratic state since it was founded. In 2003, the Orr Commission admitted that the Arab minority has long been discriminated against. The new law reflects the growing ultra-nationalism in the government, echoing the rise of populist movements in Europe and elsewhere.
Dan Meridor, former deputy prime minister, explained, “Populism is spreading all around the world – in Austria, Turkey, even in the US. After World War II, there was a strong movement toward human rights and democracy. However, today there is a return of nationalism and religion, particularly the return of religion in politics. Including in Israel.” He added: “There are no longer parties or parliamentarians and journalists between the leader and the masses. Today, the leader talks to them directly via social networks, via tweets, and the communication has turned shallow and emotional, not intelligent.”
The nation-state law is one of more than a dozen Basic Laws, which together serve as Israel’s de facto constitution and can be amended only by a majority in the Knesset. The Basic Laws legally supersede the Declaration of Independence and, unlike regular laws, have never been overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.
The new law also elicited mixed reactions from the Jewish diaspora. Although it appeased some ultra-Orthodox leaders, the pro-Zionist leadership claimed that even the revised version of the law makes the country less democratic in their view.
“This law is morally wrong, and we do not gain anything [from it]. Despite it being a watered-down version, it just aggravates citizens,” said Meridor.
Ironically, a week earlier, there was more or less consensus about Israel being a Jewish and democratic state. After the passing of the nation-state law, this consensus has become more dubious.