Israeli ministers have approved the wording of a new law that would downgrade Arabic as an official language and which states that the right to self-determination in Israel “is unique to the Jewish people”, despite the country’s sizeable non-Jewish minority.
The go-ahead for the nation state bill by the ministerial committee for legislation means it will now move forward to a vote by the country’s parliament. The bill has to pass several stages in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, for it to become law and could also be challenged in the courts.
Critics say the law is discriminatory and could undermine Israel’s balance of being both a Jewish and democratic state by harming the rights of minorities.
Hebrew and Arabic are both Israel’s national languages, but the bill states that Hebrew would be the lone national language, downgrading Arabic to “a special status in the state” whose “speakers have the right to language-accessible state services”.
The legislation is designed to be enshrined in Israel’s basic law, regarded as the closest approximation in Israel to a constitution.
The timing of the bill – after four years of deliberations – is significant, coming two weeks before a planned visit by Donald Trump in which the US president had hoped to breath life into a moribund peace process.
Although the bill has undergone some changes in the drafting process – not least removing language that would have seen Israel’s democracy subordinated in importance to its Jewish identity – it remains highly contentious.
While the way Israel’s legislative process functions has long allowed parties and individuals to put forward legislation likely to be challenged by the courts, the latest proposed law comes in the context of Israel’s most rightwing ever government.
The committee approved the bill unanimously but the measure has been condemned by opposition politicians, academics and in some parts of the Israeli media.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, representing Arab-Israeli parties, said the bill was a “declaration of war” on Israel’s Arab citizens. “Discrimination has received a legal stamp. The danger in this law in that it establishes two classes of citizen – Jewish and Arab,” he said.
Erel Margalit, a contender for the leadership of the centrist Zionist Union party, called the bill “reminiscent of dark periods” in history.
Zehava Gal-On, leader of the leftwing Meretz party, said the bill’s intention was to downgrade the rights of non-Jews in Israel. “The result of the Jewish state bill is clear. Jews will get preference over all other citizens, clearly violating human rights, democracy and the rights of the Arab minority in Israel,” she said.
The bill’s sponsor, Avi Dichter, an MP from Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party, defended the proposals, as did other ministers.
”This is a small step for the Jewish state bill, which establishes that Israel is and will be a Jewish and democratic state, and it’s a big step towards defining our identity, not only in the eyes of the world but primarily for ourselves, Israelis – to be a free people in our land,” said Dichter after the committee’s vote.
He said the bill was necessary because “events of recent months prove that this is a battle for Israel’s image and national identity. The Palestinians no longer hide their goal of erasing the Jewish people’s nation state”.
The legislative committee’s chairman, Yariv Levin, also a Likud MP, said he had decided to put an end to foot-dragging over the bill. “We’ve been waiting to discuss and make a decision on this legislation for too long. This is a basic law, which has the simple objective of safeguarding Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jewish people. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been made into law so far,” he said.