Proponents and Dissidents Speak Out About Israel’s New and Controversial Basic Law

“I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.” Genesis 17:8 (The Israel Bible™)

The passage of the Nation-State Bill early Thursday morning, aimed at boosting Israel’s Jewish character, officially codifies and clarifies the facilitation of the prophetic ingathering and protecting of the Jewish people, says Yishai Fleisher, an Israeli radio broadcaster and international spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron. The legislation, he said, “helps promote and promulgate Jewish ancient culture including the calander and language of the Bible.”

The passage of this legislation comes on the heels of the United States moving its embassy to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, followed closely by Guatemala. And other countries considering moving their embassies include Slovakia, Russia – the largest country in the world, and Brazil, the most populous South American state. With a majority of the world’s Jews currently living in Israel and now a government enshrining the Jewish character of the country, many say that we are living in momentous times.

The bill had recently made worldwide headlines as the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee headed by Likud MK Amir Ohana met to discuss the Nation-State Bill on July 10, receiving widespread criticism, including from the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin and Natan Sharansky, outgoing Jewish Agency chairman.

After hours of debate, the bill was passed with 62 in favor, 55 opposed, and two abstaining.

Basic Law informs Israel’s legal system, much like a Constitution, and is more difficult to repeal than ordinary law. Up until now, Israel’s Basic Laws relate to state institutions and democratic character rather than its Jewish national identity.  

Sections already enshrined in ordinary law include the Law of Return (Jewish immigration), the name of the state, state symbols (the flag and national anthem), the Jerusalem Law, the calendar, national holidays and the Sabbath.

A new clause in the bill that has received many critiques allows Israel to “authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.”

The Nation-State bill was first submitted in 2009-2010 by various Knesset members including the Kadima party’s Avi Dichter, who had sourced the idea from the Institute for Zionist Strategies, an Israeli policy and research think tank with the goal of preserving Israel as “a viable, democratic Jewish state.”

Proponents of the legislation argue that Israel has been forgoing its Jewish nature for its democratic nature, and it is time that the two are put on equal footing – or with its Jewish identity eclipsing its democratic identity.

Fleisher told Breaking Israel News, “In a lot of ways this bill is what you would have thought Israel is anyway – which is that Israel is the Nation-State of the Jewish people. The Nation-State bill is nothing but a redefinition of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which sets out so clearly what is Israel’s goal.”

Fleisher views Israel’s Jewish identity and democracy as conflicting values, one from ancient Judea and one from the western Greek empire. Israel, as the only Jewish State, should prioritize its Jewish identity, Fleisher said. “One of the great mistakes has been that we’ve promoted Israel as Jewish and democratic as if these two values are equal.”

He related that while democracy may have beautiful values, “democracy is a Greek word – it reflects Greek values and it’s very hard to make those two very different systems of thought to be co-equal.”  

“To me, it was always obvious that Israel is a state whose job is to protect the Jewish people first and second, to be an incubator for Jewish values and culture and third to be a country that is a light unto the nations.”

But legislation dissidents claim that Israel should be committed to full equality for all citizens, including minorities, and view Israel’s Declaration of Independence as enshrining democracy.

Dr. Amir Fuchs, Head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute told Breaking Israel News, “The initial clause that determines that Israel is a nation-state and has the right to self-determination [is a new principle]. This is anchored in the Declaration of Independence, but it is not currently written in any Basic Law except for the definition of “Jewish and democratic.”

In contrast, he said, the proposed bill states that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people without ensuring the principle of equality for all its citizens, as defined in the Declaration of Independence.

“This creates an imbalance between the Jewish and democratic values,” he maintained, adding, “Arabic is demoted from an official language of the state to a language that enjoys special status.”

But Fleisher maintained that while Israel has and will guarantee civil rights to minorities, it should not guarantee national rights. “Nobody is taking away the civil rights of other people. Israel is in a neighborhood of 400 million Arabs that live in 22 Arab States, not to mention millions more Muslims in Iran and Turkey. They have these states mostly set up as ethnic and religious states and we have this one little state that’s here to be a protector of the Jews, a source of autonomy in their region.”

He continued, “Israel is not here to create an Arab democracy or promote other people’s values or put everyone on equal footing. It’s here to promote a group of people who need protection in this world and need to have a place to have their culture grow and succeed.”

According to Sharansky, this revocation would serve the BDS movements’ critiques of Israel. Likewise, Rivlin voiced his concern that the legislation could “harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel, and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies.” Pnina Tamano-Shatta, an Ethiopian member of Knesset in Yesh Atid also argued BDS would “celebrate” the law.

Jewish diaspora leaders have agreed, including president of the Union of Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs who said the law would give Israel’s enemies “more fodder” and “weaken the case we make for Israel every day across America.”

Fuchs continued, “The bill was recently amended to state that Israel must work only “in the Diaspora” to nurture a relationship with diaspora Jewry. This means that Israel does not need to do such work within the country itself. This was a capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox parties, who were afraid that the bill would be interpreted as requiring Israel to recognize the non-Orthodox religious streams in Judaism.”

Likewise, stated Sharansky, “While the nation-state law was originally intended to reinforce this principle, the most recent amendments to it are of great concern because they drive a wedge between Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.”

But Fleisher argued, “before this law, BDS seeks to destroy Israel and after this law, BDS will seek to destroy Israel” and “only if one perceives Israel as a non-Jewish American-style state would the bill drive a wedge between the Jewish State and the Diaspora.”

He added, “Jewish Americans sometimes make the mistake in thinking that most states in the world are like America, but most states in the world are ethnic states that are there to first and foremost promote their own ethnicity – think Japan, Iceland, Slovakia, Czechia and Hungary – what do you think their national languages and cultures are? It’s obvious. They promote their own language and culture to help it flourish and grow. These things are obvious but when it comes to Israel there are forces trying to rip it down.”

Fuchs suggested that a clause should be included in the bill stating that the State of Israel is fully committed to equality for all its citizens, in particular to its minorities. “It would be appropriate to mention the Arab minority as a large minority in Israel and to note that the state is obligated their integration and inclusion in the state – as written in the Declaration of Independence,” he related.

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