'Jewish state' bill tests Israeli democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing a plan to formalize by law Israel’s status as 'the Jewish state.'

Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 2.

In the face of a rising wave of violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing forward a plan to formalize by law Israel's status as "the Jewish state." Netanyahu says it's a needed response to those who question Israel's right to exist. But the measure would anger Israel's Arab minority and could draw international condemnation, severely testing a delicate balance between democracy and the country's Jewish character. Here's a look at the debate:

Q: WHAT DOES THE LEGISLATION DO?

A: The bill aims to officially designate Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Israel has always defined itself as the "Jewish state" — a term that appears in its 1948 declaration of independence — while also characterizing itself as a democracy that upholds the rights of all citizens. The new law seeks to put the Jewish state idea into a constitution-level law.

Q: HOW "JEWISH" IS ISRAEL NOW?

A: Israel's primary language is Hebrew, Jewish holidays are national holidays and Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, is the national day of rest. The country's blue and white flag is adorned with the Star of David, and its national anthem, "Hatikva," highlights Jews' connection to the land. Under its "Law of Return," Israel automatically grants citizenship to any Jew, while immigration for non-Jews is limited. The Arab minority — about a fifth of the 8 million citizens — are meant to hold equal individual rights; Israel has Arab lawmakers, professors, judges, military officers and entertainers. This balance, however, has always been fragile. Arabs frequently suffer discrimination in the job and housing markets. Israeli Jews, meanwhile, are deeply divided over the role of religion in everyday life.

Q: WHY IS THE BILL SO CONTROVERSIAL?

A: Preliminary drafts, passed in principle during a stormy Cabinet meeting this week, include language that is widely seen as favoring the country's Jewish character over democratic ideals. One proposal would remove Arabic as a national language. Even a watered-down version proposed by Netanyahu says that Jewish law should "serve as an inspiration" for the legislature.

"This is a shameful decision," said Yossi Sarid, a veteran political dove who was once education minister. "I can hardly recognize the face of my country." He said the bill makes Arabs second-class citizens. "Our main source of pride was always equality between citizens. This law puts an end to our illusions."

Q: IF ISRAEL IS ALREADY THE JEWISH STATE, WHY IS NETANYAHU PUSHING THE BILL?

A: Netanyahu seems to be aiming to fend off hardline critics inside his governing coalition, especially with a party primary looming in January. But he denies it and says he has long supported such legislation. He says the measure is needed at a time when Israel's foes, including Palestinians and even some members of Israel's Arab minority, challenge a Jewish state's right to exist. Netanyahu said this week he can't understand how people who advocate establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel oppose him. "They are pleased to recognize a Palestinian national state but strongly oppose a Jewish national state," he said. Netanyahu's government, however, is lobbying countries against recognizing the "State of Palestine" at this time.

Q: WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

A: Centrist coalition members, including Netanyahu's justice and finance ministers, have already pledged to vote against the bill and warned the government could collapse, likely triggering elections.

Pressing forward could also worsen tensions between Jews and Arabs. Eleven people have been killed in Palestinian attacks in recent weeks, including an assault on a Jerusalem synagogue last week that killed five Israelis. The tensions center around a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem revered by Jews and Christians, and all of the attacks have been carried out by Palestinians who were not Israeli citizens. But the unrest has threatened to spill over into Israeli Arab communities and the legislation will likely inflame the situation.

It also threatens Israel's international image, already hurt by the collapse of peace talks, the summer's Gaza war, and global opposition to Israeli settlement construction on occupied land. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the U.S was watching the bill's progress with "quite a bit of interest" and expected Israel to continue its "commitment to democratic principles."

Q: WHAT DO ISRAELI ARABS THINK?

A: Arab leaders have decried the legislation as racist, anti-democratic and dangerous.

"The status of Palestinians in Israel will be officially second-class citizens," says Jamal Zahalka, a prominent Arab legislator. "People are angry. People feel despair. People feel alienated." He said the law could have practical effects by providing a basis for discriminatory legislation.

Q: WHAT NEXT?

A: Netanyahu delayed a planned parliamentary vote on Wednesday to give lawmakers an extra week to compromise on language.

Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who is now president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said even softer versions will have a difficult time passing parliament. He called the effort unnecessary since Israel's Jewish character is already well-established — and said versions floated so far threaten the democracy-Jewishness balance.

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