The Israeli Knesset’s passage on Thursday of controversial legislation known as the “nation-state bill” drew mixed reactions from Jewish groups around the globe.
The new law — approved in an overnight vote by a 62-55 margin — says, “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.”
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) asserted that two parts of the law “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”
“First, the measure downgrades Arabic from its longstanding status as one of Israel’s official languages to one that has ‘special status,’ the AJC said. “This not only directly affects the 21 percent of Israel’s citizens who comprise the country’s largest minority, but it also would appear to work against the government’s ongoing efforts to encourage the use of Arabic, given Israel’s location in the Middle East.”
“Second,” the AJC continued, “the clause in the bill saying, ‘the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation’ could be read as a euphemism for the originally proposed endorsement of support for Jewish-only communities in Israel.”
“We respectfully ask the Government of Israel to clarify these and other questionable elements of the bill, and to reaffirm the core principles and values that make up the very foundation of Israel’s vibrant and admired democracy,” the AJC concluded.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO Jonathan Greenblatt stated, “While there are provisions that we agree with — notably with regard to state symbols like the anthem, flag and capital Jerusalem; as well as in reaffirming that the State of Israel is open to Jewish immigration — we are 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.”
“Israel has a long and commendable record of respect for and protection of the rights of all its citizens including its ethnic and religious minorities, but provisions in the law could impact these protections,” he added. “Additionally, the bill stipulates that only in the Diaspora will the State of Israel act to preserve the bond between the State and the Jewish people, potentially undermining existing Israeli government commitments to religious pluralism.”
“Now that this law has been passed by the Knesset, the State of Israel has an obligation to ensure that, in practice, this Basic Law is not used to discriminate against minorities, particularly its Arab citizens, and that the state maintains its commitment to improve relations between Jews in Israel and those around the world,” Greenblatt said.
Sheila Gewolb, the senior vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, stated, “Whilst we celebrate Israel’s Jewish-ness, there is concern that some of the measures in this law are regressive steps. Among Israel’s great strengths are its democracy and diversity, Being Jewish is a wonderful thing, but this should not lead to doing down others. All people should be valued and Israel’s Arab and other minority populations should be a treasured part of society. The lesson of Jewish history is that societies are stronger when minorities are affirmed, and they decay when minorities are degraded. We will be writing to Israel’s ambassador to express concerns at these measures.”
The National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), on the other hand, welcomed the law.
“The National Council of Young Israel applauds the Members of Knesset who voted in favor of the Jewish nation-state legislation and we are gratified that it has now become law,” it said in a statement. “This noteworthy bill codifies what we all know to be fundamental principles and rudimentary facts relative to the deep-seated and longstanding link that the Jewish people and Israel have shared for thousands of years. Israel is indeed the ‘national home of the Jewish people’ and anyone attempting to deny that basic premise is turning a blind eye to history and disregarding what is an elemental truth.”
“While the democratic State of Israel facilitates freedom of religion and affords people of various backgrounds the right to visit and reside there, the reality is that Israel is inherently a Jewish state and affirming that fact does not contravene the liberties that it benevolently bestows to individuals of other faiths,” it continued. “Passage of this bill was vital to ensure the continuity of the connection between the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and publicly pronouncing that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people is an essential legislative act that is long overdue.”
Israeli-Jewish Congress (IJC) President Vladimir Sloutsker called the law “a long overdue, yet truly historic and defining moment in the long and proud history of Zionism and the modern State of Israel.”
“As The Israeli-Jewish Congress, our very mission since inception has been the promotion of the principle of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Sloutsker said. “This law simply correct a long overdue injustice and enshrines this very basic and fundamental principle. Israel shall always remain a strong, proud and vibrant democracy, and there is nothing in this law that will diminish that.
“At a time when there are many who seek to undermine and attack the very notion of Jewish self-determination, as expressed in the Land of Israel being the ancestral and historical national homeland of the Jewish people, there has never been a greater sense of urgency in enshrining this very fundamental principle in Basic Law,” he added. “We applaud the Knesset for their leadership in passing this historic bill and shall undertake to work with the Knesset, the Government and our allies in the Diaspora to put the principles and vision of this law into effect.”