Law will ‘reveal ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance’, professor says
Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem
Israel is in the throes of political upheaval as the country’s ruling party seeks to pass legislation that could allow for Jewish-only communities, which critics have condemned as the end of a democratic state.
For the past half-decade, politicians have been wrangling over the details of the bill that holds constitution-like status and that Benjamin Netanyahu wants passed this month.
The proposed legislation would allow the state to “authorise a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community”.
In its current state, the draft would also permit Jewish religious law to be implemented in certain cases and remove Arabic as an official language.
“In the Israeli democracy, we will continue to protect the rights of both the individual and the group, this is guaranteed. But the majority have rights too, and the majority rules,” the Israeli prime minister said this week.
A vote on the bill is expected next week, although a final draft has yet to be agreed on. The legislation has been compared to South African apartheid by Israeli parliamentarians, and several thousand Israelis protested in Tel Aviv on Saturday.
The Middle Eastern country sees itself as both a democratic and a Jewish state, saying its legal system protects the rights of Arabs, who make up more than a fifth of the population, and other minorities. However, the “Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people” bill would enshrine the country’s Jewish national and religious character into law.
“Our main concern is that it is changing the nature of the state and it changes the balance of Israel as a nation state,” said Amir Fuchs, the head of the defending democratic values programme at the Israel Democracy Institute. “You can be a nation state and still be a democracy as long as you don’t discriminate,” said Fuchs. “That the state is allowed to create villages that will separate on the basis of race or religion or nationality – this is outrageous.”
The purpose of the bill, he said, was “to change the balance, to make us more of a nation state, more of a Jewish state, and less of a democracy. There is no other way to put it. And this is the biggest problem.”
Netanyahu has lashed out at domestic and international critics, ordering the foreign ministry to reprimand the EU envoy Emanuele Giaufret after he was reported as saying the bill was discriminatory.
Both Israel’s attorney general and president, who holds a symbolic role, also opposed details of the bill. The president, Reuven Rivlin, said it would harm the Jewish people worldwide and “even be used as a weapon by our enemies”. The segregation clause, he said, could also allow towns that exclude Jews of Middle Eastern origin – who have been historically sidelined – or homosexuals.
Legislator Miki Zohar, from the prime minister’s Likud party, said: “Unfortunately, President Rivlin has lost it” and had “forgotten his DNA”.
Many Israeli neighbourhoods and towns are already effectively segregated, with residents either vastly Jewish or Arab. In many places, it is tough for an Arab to move in, although segregation is not legal.
Writing in the progressive-leaning Haaretz newspaper, Mordechai Kremnitzer, from the faculty of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the bill would “remove the mask so as to reveal the ugly face of ultranationalist Israel in all its repugnance”.
The debate has also opened a rift with the Jewish diaspora, with fears among more liberal American Jewish groups that it would prioritise Orthodox communities over other denominations.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the bill was a grave threat to Israeli democracy and hurt “the delicate balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, and it enthrones ultra-Orthodox Judaism at the expense of the majority of a pluralistic world Jewry”.
Daniel Sokatch, the chief executive of New Israel Fund, which supports civil rights groups in Israel, decried the bill as “tribalism at its worst”.