Published: Thu, July 19, 2018
Global | By Shelia Dennis

Israel approves 'Jewish nation state' law that critics say sidelines minorities

Israel approves 'Jewish nation state' law that critics say sidelines minorities

JERUSALEM: Israel´s parliament on Thursday 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.

Early Thursday morning, the Knesset passed the law, which has been dubbed "the nation-state Law", with 62 lawmakers voting in favor, 55 opposed and two abstaining, after hours of heated debate in the Knesset chamber.

Mr Netanyahu said the bill was about defending the Jewish character of the state, which was established in 1948 as a homeland for the Jewish people, "for generations to come". It also downgrades Arabic from an official language alongside Hebrew to a "special" one, and declares Jerusalem as the united capital of Israel.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, said that it was a "historic moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel".

The government says the bill only enshrines into law what had always been integral to Israel's existing character, but the country's minority Arabs, which make up about 20 percent of the country's 9 million people, see the change as akin to establishing apartheid.

Last week Mr Netanyahu defended the law, saying: "We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel's democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides".

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Opponents of the new bill say it marginalizes the country's Arab minority of around 20 per cent.

Some Arab MPs shouted and ripped up papers after the vote.

For instance, New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch called the bill "completely incompatible" with the "democratic foundation" of the Israeli state.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, pulled out a black flag and waved it during his speech, warning of the implications of the law.

The government says the bill will formally place into law the country's existing status.

Arab citizens account for some 17.5 percent of Israel´s more than eight million population.

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Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and his Right-wing coalition government supported the bill.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home Party, said Breaking the Silence, "had crossed the line of legitimate dialogue a long time ago when they chose to slander the State of Israel in the worldwide arena".

"If there had been another paragraph that also gives full equality to all citizens of Israel, then I would have been a lot more relaxed", he said.

The American Jewish Committee, a group representing the Jewish Diaspora, said it was "deeply disappointed", adding that the law "puts at risk the commitment of Israel's founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic".

Reuters notes, "Early drafts of the legislation went further in what critics at home and overseas saw as discrimination toward Israel's Arabs, who have long said they are treated as second-class citizens".

Rivlin, whose role as president is mainly symbolic, had made a rare intervention in politics earlier this month to raise alarm over the clause.

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