Five questions on Israel’s controversial Jewish nation law

Jerusalem: Israel’s parliament held a special session on Wednesday to debate a controversial law passed last month declaring the country the nation state of the Jewish people.

Here are five questions and answers related to the law:

Why is the law controversial?
It has long been taken for granted by many that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, as described in the 1948 declaration of independence at the country’s founding in the wake of the Holocaust.

As a result, the controversy surrounding the law has much to do with what is not in it rather than what is.

It contains no mention of equality or democracy, implying that Israel’s Jewish nature takes precedence — what Israel’s far-right religious nationalist politicians have long advocated.

Beyond that, several clauses contained in the legislation are also sources of concern, especially since the text is part of Israel’s so-called basic laws, which form a de facto constitution.

One section speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a “unique” right to self-determination there.

Another defines the establishment of Jewish communities as in the national interest and makes Hebrew the sole official language, downgrading Arabic to special status.

This has led to concerns that Arab Israelis, who account for some 17.5 percent of Israel’s more than eight million population, could now be openly discriminated against in everything from housing to budgeting and land allocation.

Are there other laws protecting equality and democratic principles?
Only in part. Israel’s basic laws include references to the country as “Jewish and democratic”, but no specific right to equality apart from the declaration of independence.

Amir Fuchs, of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank and who participated in committee meetings on the legislation as an expert, said courts have interpreted a right to human dignity in basic laws as guaranteeing equality.

Much will depend on how Israel’s courts interpret the new legislation in comparison to what was on the books, said Fuchs, who called it a “terrible law which changes the definition of Israel.”

Emmanuel Navon, senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank that advocated the legislation, said equality is already anchored in law due to court decisions regarding it and existing laws.

“Those principles are enshrined in Israeli law, not only by those basic laws but also by many decision from the supreme court, by the Israeli jurisprudence,” he said.

What are examples of changes the law could provoke?
Israel’s Arab minority fears the law legalises discrimination that will allow them to be openly excluded from housing, for example, or see state budgets skewed against them.

Fuchs said the immediate impact is more symbolic than practical, but over the long-term he can envision gradual changes.

That could include laws such as forcing parliament members or new citizens to take an oath saying they are loyal to a “Jewish and democratic” state.

But even if there are no immediate practical effects, Fuchs said the symbolism of it remains powerful.

“Whoever you talk to who is an Arab or not Jewish will tell you, and rightly so, that this sends a message that you are not full citizens in this country,” he said.

For Navon, the law was necessary to protect Israel’s identity as a Jewish state against future attempts to erode that.

He named possible changes in laws that could allow Palestinians who marry Arab Israelis to more easily gain citizenship, a potential threat to the country’s Jewish majority.

Navon also spoke of symbolic issues such as challenges to Israel’s Star of David flag or programmes supporting the Jewish diaspora.

Why was it approved now?
Israel’s religious nationalist politicians, including those who oppose a Palestinian state and want to annex much of the occupied West Bank, have for years called for such a law.

But a range of political analysts say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, pushed for it now with upcoming elections in mind.

Parliament’s current term ends in November 2019, but there has been speculation that Netanyahu, facing a possible corruption indictment, could call early polls.

The law is seen as allowing Netanyahu to shore up his political base and fend off rivals from the far-right.

What has been the response?
Five court challenges have been filed. There have also been protests led by Israel’s 130,000-strong Druze minority, who are required to serve in Israel’s military unlike other Arab Israelis.

At Wednesday’s parliament hearing, there were calls from the opposition to make Israel’s declaration of independence its constitution.

Netanyahu says that without the law “it will be impossible to ensure for generations the future of Israel as a Jewish national state.”

Agence France-Presse