Israel’s parliament yesterday adopted a law defining the country as the nation state of the Jewish people, provoking fears it could lead to blatant discrimination against Arab citizens.
Arab lawmakers and Palestinians called the law “racist” and said it legalised “apartheid” following a tumultuous debate in parliament. Others said it neglects to specify equality and Israel’s democratic character, implying that the country’s Jewish nature comes first.
Arab parliament members who called the legislation “racist” ripped up copies of the bill in the chamber of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, after it was passed. “This is a law that encourages not only discrimination, but racism as well,” lawmaker Yousef Jabareen said. Arab citizens account for some 17.5 percent of Israel’s more than eight million population. They have long complained of discrimination.
Various versions of the legislation have been debated for years. President Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, seen as the most right-wing in the country’s history, had pushed for the law’s approval before the parliament’s summer session ends.
The European Union expressed concern and called for the rights of minorities to be respected.
The legislation, adopted by 62 votes to 55, makes Hebrew the country’s national language and defines the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest.
Arabic, previously considered an official language, was granted only special status.
The law, passed in the early hours of Thursday, speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a “unique” right to self-determination there, according to copies of the final text quoted by Israeli media.
However, a deeply controversial clause that had been seen as more specifically legalising the establishment of Jewish-only communities was changed after it drew criticism, including from President Reuven Rivlin.
The legislation becomes part of the country’s basic laws, which serve as a de facto constitution.
“It is our state, the Jewish state, but in recent years some have tried to question that as well as the principles of our existence and our rights,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the vote on the legislation, backed by his right-wing government. He called its approval a “decisive moment” in Israeli history.