TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the newly passed Jewish State bill, which officially defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, calling it “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel.”
62 MKs voted in favor of the bill, 55 opposed and two abstained.
“We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence,” said Netanyahu. “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, which respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state — the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag.”
The legislation states that a “united Jerusalem” is the capital of Israel and names Hebrew as the country’s official language, relegating Arabic to that of “special status.”
Former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter, who proposed the bill, said it was a response to anyone in the country who believes Jewish presence is temporary — an apparent reference to Arab MK Jamal Zahalka’s claim that the Arab presence in the country will outlast the Jewish presence.
“All you can be is an equal minority, not an equal nationality,” Dichter said.
Dichter continued, “Contrary to the disinformation and fake news that have flooded [the conversation], the Basic Law does not hurt Israel’s minority cultures.”
He added that the Arabic language will not lose its standing since the bill stipulates that the clause promoting Hebrew as the official language also contains the caveat that it will “not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein also praised the new bill, calling it “one of the most important laws ever to be passed by the Knesset.”
The legislation sparked an outcry from the opposition and from Israel’s Arab parties, which deemed it racist and discriminatory towards Israel’s Arab population. Arab party leaders tore up copies of the bill in protest.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin slammed the Labor party for being against the bill. “Tell us honestly, Labor members: Do you contest the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel? Is it not our nation state? Is its flag not acceptable to you? There has never been such a rejection by the Labor movement of Zionist values.”
The Zionist Union’s Shelly Yachimovich said, “Nobody believes it is nationality and the State of Israel that [the coalition is] interested in.”
MK Tzipi Livni said the law was intended to divide Israel. “When I asked coalition MKs why they weren’t bringing forth a version of the law that a hundred MKs could unite around, they smiled at me cynically and said Netanyahu wants the law to create strife. ‘Otherwise how will people know he’s more patriotic than you? What will we get out of supporting it?’ That’s the method,” she said.
Opposition chief Isaac Herzog, who is leaving his position to become the new head of the Jewish Agency, was more nuanced in his critique.
“The question is whether the law will hurt or strengthen Israel,” he said. “History will be the judge. I very much hope the delicate balance between [Israel’s] Jewish and democratic aspects will not be upset.”
MK Elazar Stern from the opposition Yesh Atid party said the law was an insult “to our Druze and Bedouin brothers who serve with us in the IDF and in the security services.”
MK Benny Begin, the only Likud member to abstain, warned the law could increase extreme nationalism.
Meretz party head Tamar Zandber also lamented the “shameful night” and “debased and tainted law.”
The Joint (Arab) List called the law “anti-democratic, colonialist, racist and with clear characteristics of apartheid.”
“The law has no mention of the word democracy or the word equality, and is wholly committed to brutish emphasis of ethnic supremacy, leaving no doubt that there are two types of citizenship — first-rate ones for Jews and second-rate ones for Arabs,” it said.
MK Ayeda Touma-Souliman lashed out at Netanyahu: “You passed an apartheid law, a racist law.”
MK Ahmed Tibi added, “Why are you afraid of the Arabic language?”
Netanyahu answered, “How dare you talk this way about the only democracy in the Middle East?”