In tribute to the maxim that “all politics is local,” this week Israeli Cabinet members sidestepped discussions of recent issues of national concern – such as increasing unrest in Jerusalem, the budget impasse and the Iranian nuclear talks. Instead they chose to focus on the Nation-State Bill. For the lawmakers involved, this bill is less about the moral and legal considerations that define the state of Israel, and more about the survival of the current coalition.
Amid convoluted parliamentary proceedings, political posturing, ideological pronouncements and personal vitriol, by a vote of 14-6 the Cabinet on Sunday passed an amalgam of two bills that originated in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and enjoy the support of right-wing Habayit Hayehudi, the Jewish Home Party.
The bill upends the concept of Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” and downgrades democracy to secondary status. It declares that Israel is, first and foremost, “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” providing all of Israel’s 8 million citizens with the vague promise that they will be afforded “personal rights in accordance with every law.”
The proposed law also declares that only the Jewish people enjoy the right to national self-determination and that housing can be determined by religion or nationality. And if Jewish law, Halacha, takes precedence over civil law in both legal and legislative proceedings, as some scholars interpret the bill, Israel will find itself in the company of other theocratic Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It has been reported that the bill will be withdrawn after it is presented to the entire Knesset in favor of a version of the bill that Prime Minister Netanyahu is formulating. His bill is expected to omit the stipulation that Hebrew will be Israel’s only official language, reducing Arabic to a “special status,” and other more extreme measures the original bill contains. While the Cabinet bill is expected to pass, even that outcome is by no means certain as a number of politicians have lined up against it.
As Knesset Member Rabbi Dov Lipman of the centrist Yesh Atid Party told WJW, the verbiage and the voting must be seen against the backdrop of the Likud Party primaries scheduled for January. “Everyone is trying to ‘out right-wing’ others in their own party and in Habayit Hayehudi,” he said. As if to validate this premise, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett stated: “If the bill doesn’t pass, we don’t have a coalition; everything will fall apart.” Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, whose party holds the most Knesset seats  and Tzipi Livni, who heads the six-seat Hatnuah Party, voted against the measure and have indicated they will not support that bill in the Knesset.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of coalition partner Yisrael Beitenu, is said to support the bill Netanyahu will present. However, he has also made it clear that he is not afraid of new elections, anticipating that his and other right-wing political parties would acquire additional representation.
“I don’t think the legislation accomplishes anything,” Lipman said. “I moved to Israel knowing that Israel is a Jewish state. I feel its Jewishness all around me every day. Part of being Jewish and being a Jewish state is to respect people who are not Jewish. A law of this kind, particularly at this time, is only negative – negative in terms of the non-Jews in Israel; negative in terms of the rest of the world and negative in terms of us as human beings.”
Israel has no constitution, no bill of rights. Its national identity is enshrined in its Declaration of Independence, which refers to the country as a Jewish state and stipulates that Israel “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; [and] will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture.” But Israel’s political character has changed dramatically since those words were written in 1948, slowly but inexorably acquiring a religious and nationalistic outlook.
If passed, the Nation-State Bill would become one of Israel’s Basic Laws. Somewhat akin to the American Bill of Rights and subsequent U.S. Constitutional amendments, the Basic Laws define some of Israel’s democratic aspects, yet do not include many personal guarantees Americans enjoy.
Former Silver Spring resident Lipman moved to Israel 10 years ago. Like him, Americans who immigrated to Israel – regardless of their personal politics – remember that in the United States their rights and status as equal citizens were protected by law.
“Especially because we have an American upbringing,” Lipman said, “we need to maintain the American perspective toward Israel’s Christian and Muslim Arabs.
“I’ve had many conversations with Israeli Arabs. They are stricken with fear about what could happen if this bill passes. The majority of them want to live here even though it is not easy to be an Israeli Arab and even though the symbols of the state – like the national anthem and the flag – are Jewish symbols. We need to … hear what they are saying.”
The bill has evoked strong feelings throughout its many iterations: people on the right feel it is not strong enough and those on the left are appalled by its anti-democratic provisions. Despite the changes Netanyahu is said to be proposing, many in the center and on the left still consider the Nation-State issue problematic at best and dangerous at worst.
Designating Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” will reignite long-simmering controversies such as: Who interprets Jewish law? What defines the Jewish people? Who is a Jew?
Yesh Atid Knesset member Yoel Razbozov, chairman of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, noted that the bill discriminates against those whose Jewish ancestry enabled them to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but who are not considered Jewish by the state. “This law will turn 300,000 Russians into second-class citizens,” Yair Lapid added.
It is assumed there is little possibility the Nation-State bill will be passed when next presented.
Other bills of this nature have been passed in recent years, among them:
The Budget Foundations Act, which allows the Finance Ministry to cut funding for municipalities, organizations and public institutions “due to activities against the state’s principles.”
The Boycott Law that makes every Israeli who publicly calls for a boycott against the State of Israel liable to pay punitive damages, “independent of the actual damage caused.” This means that anyone calling for a boycott of settlement products, specific business or other endeavors can be sued, even if the boycott call has no effect.
Sarabeth Lukin is an Israeli journalist.