On July 22, Israel’s Knesset is set to vote on a bill that would enshrine the state’s Jewish character in a manner that threatens basic democratic rights.
The so-called “nation-state bill,” first proposed in 2011 and dragged out several times since in various versions, is now enhanced with troubling new provisions. A pet project of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Likud party and its right-wing allies, the bill states that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and declares the flag and the Star of David to be its symbols. Jewish holidays are national holidays and the Hebrew calendar is the national calendar. These are all status quo items.
It goes on, however, to demote Arabic, now an official state language, to one that only has “special standing”; it states that when there is no relevant precedent, Jewish law may be invoked to decide legal cases; and it states that communities may legally exclude individuals whose identities do not match those of the community itself. That means, in effect, Jewish communities may bar non-Jews from living there, as well as Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews and LGBT individuals, among others.
Additionally, this nation-state bill is proposed as a Basic Law, which, as Israel has no constitution, gives it special status that makes it very difficult to overturn.
Great opposition to the bill is being expressed. Outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told the Jerusalem Post this week that it will “drive a wedge” between Jewish denominations in Israel, and between Israel and the diaspora for another clause that suggests diaspora Jews have no role in advancing religious pluralism within Israel.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also has come out strongly against the bill, writing in a letter that it represents “discrimination and exclusion based on ethnic origin.” By permitting “Jewish-only communities,” he wrote, it “could harm the Jewish people and Jews around the world and in Israel, and could even be used by our enemies as a weapon.”
ARZA, the Reform movement’s Israel advocacy organization in North America, slams the bill as “the latest of a series of legislative assaults on Israel’s democratic character,” along with the “protester ban” that bars entry to the country on political grounds, and the growing power of the Chief Rabbinate and haredi parties to decide questions of Jewish identity and practice.
This is not the Israel envisioned by its founders, who stated unequivocally that the fledgling nation was to be a Jewish and a democratic state. Striking the right balance requires constant vigilance. This bill threatens to topple the project, and must be opposed.