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On Thursday, September 27 the Center for Israel Studies welcomed the George Washington University’s Chair of Israel Studies Dr. Arie Dubnov and Zefat Academic College Dean of Law Professor Mohammed Wattad to discuss Israel’s Jewish and democratic balance. Moderated by AU Jewish Studies Program Dr. Lauren B. Strauss, the discussion focused on Israeli-Arab citizens and the atmosphere around the new Nation-State law. The full English translation of the law can be found at the bottom of this article.


Background on the Basic Law

This July, Israel’s Knesset passed the nation’s 13th Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, a bill that affirms its Israel’s character as a Jewish state. Long debated, the law has many potential consequences for Israel’s democratic character and for the Israeli-Arab

Citizens. Sending shockwaves through Israeli society, the law has been met with polarizing responses from the domestic and global public.


As CIS describes, “the basic principles of the bills are that the land of Israel is the historical home of the Jewish people, the State of Israel is their national home, and the right to self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people. The bill formalizes state symbols, Jerusalem as the capital, and national holidays. It defines Hebrew as the formal language of the State and Arabic as a language with special status (downgrading it from its previous status of an official State language), promotes Jewish settlement as a “national value,” and affirms the State’s commitment to connect with and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.”


Supporters say the law is intended to secure Israel’s Jewish character in the legal realm and necessary given developments that they perceive as tipping the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character in favor of the latter, especially in the Supreme Court. They contend that the existing Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty define Israel’s democratic character, so the present bill was necessary to ground Israel’s Jewish character in constitutional law. Many Diaspora Jewish organizations and non-Orthodox Israeli Jews interpret the law as further denying them full recognition within the State of Israel, the Jewish nation, arguing that the main goal is not to balance, but for “the ‘Jewish’ element to take precedence over the ‘democratic’ element.” Particularly within the Arab public opinion,  the law is widely perceived as an expression “of Jewish supremacy and (tells) us that we will always be second-class citizens,” as described by Chair of the Joint List MK Ayman Odeh.


Representing the largest non-Jewish population in Israel, Israeli-Arabs comprise nearly 21% of the full population, about 1.8 million people. Around 4.8% of the population is referred to as non-Arab and non-Jewish. Comprising about 400,000 people, this marginal group is mostly made up of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish citizens, many of which coming from the former Soviet Union countries.


First proposed to the Knesset in 2011 by MK Avi Ditcher (Likud), the bill was repeatedly shelved, revised and crucially amended due to the heated controversy it generated. Won by a slim 62:55 majority and two absentees, the vote was intensely anticipated and by no means was an outcome predicted certainly. Preceding the final vote, the Basic Law text underwent weeks of revisions to soften the controversial clauses that would hinder necessary support for approval.


“Many would say that the final version is ultimately symbolic and declarative, though the type and degree of societal ramifications are yet to be seen,” says CIS, “Meanwhile, the process of finalization included intense debate over the bill itself and its highly controversial clauses which added to tensions in state-minority relations surrounding the legalization, and to the deterioration of trust between Jewish and Arab citizens.”


The Controversy

Even on a declarative level, the legislation raises concerns regarding the status of Arab citizens, Jewish-Arab relations, and Arab citizens’ sense of belonging in Israel. Speculated as “a slippery slope paving the way for more concrete measures in the future, possibly affecting close decisions in the Supreme Court, compromising government commitment to providing equal services and ‘deepening the rift and exacerbating the hostility between the parts of Israeli society,’” adds CIS.


Extending the right of national self-determination particularly to Jewish citizens, the legislation surfaced challenges and sensitive questions about Israeli public opinion on nationality and nationalism. CIS mentions that critics say, “the law failed to grapple with Palestinians citizens’ insistence that they have a right to live in Israel with full and equal rights, and that they will not give up their Palestinian national identity to do so.” Others say this is corrosion of the founding ideals of Israel. Criticizing that Israel was intended to protect not just the Jewish people but also the ideals of democracy and pluralism.


Law professor Eugene Kontorovich critiques these speculations as overblown, saying, “In reality, Israel’s Basic Law would not be out of place among the liberal democratic constitution of Europe.” An article on The Forward suggests that critique is an attack on Israel’s right to exist as a state of the Jewish people, writing, “What could a right of ‘national’ self-determination to non-Jewish communities inside Israel possibly mean other than ending the Jewish state as such?”


The bill’s sponsor, MK Avi Dichter (Likud), says the law is in response to efforts “to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens.” More prominent, many responses point out that most of the principles have been appearing decades, and some are already enacted and just reaffirmed by the Basic Law. Technically, the law does not deprive a single individual of a single right but can be criticized for unnecessarily inviting attack from Israel’s critics.


The American Jewish Response

Receiving international coverage, the bill has attracted and kept the public’s attention. American Jewish concerns extend beyond state-minority relation towards the status and treatment of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. Many Jewish organizations issued statements referencing the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens, such as:

  • The Anti-Defamation League, which stated that it is “troubled by the fact that the law, which celebrates the fundamental Jewish nature of the state, raises significant questions about the government’s long-term commitment to its pluralistic identity and democratic nature.”

  • The American Jewish Committee, which expressed deep disappointment with the laws controversial language clauses.

  • The Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs stated that the Reform Movement will “oppose this new law because of the harmful effect on the Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, as well as its negative impact on the balance between the various core founding values of the State of Israel.”

  • The Jewish Council for Public Affairs expressed “profound disappointment and concern that this new law undermines Israel’s vibrant democracy comprised of diverse religious and ethnic groups.”

  • The National Council for Jewish Women called the bill “unnecessary” and said it “takes away the hope of creating an equal and shared society.”


Full Text of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

Publicized: July 19, 2018


The following is the official Knesset translation of the final version of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, passed by the Knesset on July 19, 2018.


Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

  1. Basic principles

    • The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

    • The State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills, its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination

    • The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

  2. The symbols of the state

    • The name of the state is “Israel.”

    • The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.

    • The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.

    • The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”

    • Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.

  3. The capital of the state

    • Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.

  4. Language

    • The state’s language is Hebrew.

    • The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in a state institution or by them will be set in law.

    • This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

  5. The ingathering of the exiles’

    • The state will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles.

  6. Connection to the Jewish people

    • The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.

    • The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.

    • The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.

  7. Jewish settlement

    • The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

  8. Official calendar

    • The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it, the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by the law.

  9. Independence Day and memorial days

    • Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.

    • Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day are official memorial days of the State.

  10. Days of rest of Sabbath

    • The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.

  11. Immutability

    • This Basic Law shall not be amended unless by another Basic Laws passed by a majority of Knesset members.