Israel Enshrines Jewish Identity in Law Amid Opposition Outcry

(Bloomberg) -- Israel’s parliament passed a controversial bill enshrining its Jewish character in law, prompting an outcry from civil-rights organizations and opposition leaders who say it discriminates against the country’s Arab minority.

Ahead of the vote late Wednesday, opposition members of the Knesset said the law, which defines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” would harm Israel’s Arabs, which constitute about 20 percent of the population. The bill, which includes a clause that downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language to one with “special status,” was approved after fierce debate, with 62 voting in favor, 55 opposed and two abstaining.

“Why would the bill’s authors downgrade Arabic from the status of an official language?" said Amir Fuchs, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute. "What can be gained other than offending the Arab minority?”

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.

‘Defining moment’

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 passage of the law is “a defining moment in the history of the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We have etched our language, our anthem and our flag in the rock of law.”

The bill was approved 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. That clause was removed following an outcry by President Reuven Rivlin and reservations from the government’s legal counsel.

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