Controversial Bill on Israel's Jewish Character Heads to Finale

(Bloomberg) -- A bill enshrining Israel’s Jewish character in law is heading into its final stretch after years of debate, over the objections of civil-rights organizations and opposition leaders who say it discriminates against the country’s Arab minority.

The bill was expected to be brought to a parliamentary committee vote this week, after a provision that could have blocked Arabs and Jews from living in each other’s communities was excised, following an outcry by President Reuven Rivlin and reservations from the government’s legal counsel. Detractors say the bill’s definition of the country as the Jewish national home is unfair to Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

The bill “is very important to guaranteeing the essence of our existence, and we must pass it soon,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday at a meeting of his Likud party’s parliamentary faction, according to the Ynet website.

The bill’s supporters want to bring it for a full Knesset vote before the parliament breaks for summer recess next week. If passed, it would become Israel’s 12th Basic Law -- the country’s equivalent of a constitution -- though it likely would face court challenges.

Arab Rights

Israeli leaders have argued for years that the state’s Jewish identity needs to be anchored in a specific law, not just in the Declaration of Independence. Nearly all Zionist political parties support formally defining Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and the flag, national anthem and other symbols emphasize the country’s Jewish character.

Over the years, various iterations of the bill failed to reach a vote due to accusations that they discriminated against Arabs, women and non-Jewish immigrants, or subjugated democracy to Jewish identity. The current version advanced only after the housing clause, which would have allowed discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion, was replaced by a provision supporting the establishment of Jewish communities throughout the country.

The bill “sticks a finger in the eyes of a fifth of the citizens, deliberately creating conflict among people to earn a bit more political capital for the Netanyahu tyranny,” Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-dominated parties in Israel’s parliament, wrote on Twitter.

Passing a bill strengthening the national characteristics of the state, without clearly anchoring the principle of equality for all citizens, could erode Israel’s democratic nature, said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. He said it was problematic that the bill demotes Arabic from its status as an official national language, instead granting it a “special standing” and mandating that Arab citizens continue to have access to state services in their native tongue.

No ‘Jewish People’

The legislation also could anger Palestinian officials, who don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state and reject the notion that Jews constitute a people entitled to self-determination. Palestinians also fear the bill could block their demand that Arab refugees from the 1948 Middle East war, and their millions of descendants, be granted a “right of return” to Israel.

The bill declares Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital, a characterization opposed by Palestinians, who claim the city’s eastern sector for themselves. The Palestinian Authority broke off ties with Washington after the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December.

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