Israel’s “Nationality Bill” is a Bad Idea

May 9, 2017

The so-called Israel Nationality Law approved on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation does nothing to enshrine Israel’s status as a homeland for the Jewish people, while sending a dangerous message to its Arab minority that they are second-class citizens.

The legislation still has to pass the Knesset, where it could be amended, and it could also face legal challenges. However, the fact that it was unanimously approved by an important government committee is significant and should not be allowed to pass in silence.

The Nationality Law is intended to serve as Basic Law, similar to a constitutional law, and would declare Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. It addresses national symbols, including the flag and the national anthem, the right of return for Jews, holy sites and the Hebrew calendar. Though these clauses may be relatively uncontroversial, there are others that are deeply troubling. One states that Israel’s sole national language will be Hebrew and downgrades Arabic’s status to that of “a special status in the state,” adding that “its speakers have the right to language-accessible state services.”

It is sad and deeply troubling that – yet again – the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lending its hand to measures that erode the country’s democratic fabric, while going against the basic principles set out in the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Critics of the bill have pointed out that there is no need for legislation to enshrine Israel’s Jewish identity. This was recognized in the 1947 United Nations resolution that paved the way for Israel’s independence and in the Declaration of Independence itself, which stated: “We … hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” Similarly, the state’s Basic Law already defines Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Indeed, as President Reuven Rivlin said of an earlier draft of the bill in 2014: “Does this bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us? Into the very hands of those who wish to show, that even within us, there are those who see contradiction between our being a free people in our land, and the freedoms of the non-Jewish communities amongst us?”

Rivlin noted that the writers of the Declaration of Independence “insisted that the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not feel as the Jews had felt in exile.”

Those sentiments should continue to guide us today.

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