The Israeli parliament has approved a controversial bill characterizing the country as principally a Jewish state, fuelling anger among its Arab minority.
The so-called “nation state” law says Jews have a unique right to national self-determination there and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language.
Arab lawmakers reacted furiously in parliament, with one waving a black flag and another ripping up the bill.
Om Benjamin Netanyahu praised the law’s passage as a “defining moment”.
He said: “A hundred and twenty-two years after [the founder of modern Zionism Theodore] Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens.”
Among its 11 provisions, the Basic Law describes Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says the right to exercise national self-determination there is “unique to the Jewish people”.
The law also reiterates the status of Jerusalem under Israeli law, which defines the city as the “complete and united… capital of Israel”.
Controversially, the law singles out Hebrew as the “state’s language”, effectively prioritizing it above Arabic which has for decades been recognized as an official language alongside Hebrew.
The law ascribes Arabic “special status” and says its standing before the law came into effect will not be harmed.
In one of its clauses, the law stresses the importance of “development of Jewish settlement as a national value”, though it is unclear whether this also alludes to settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The bill has been under discussion since it was first introduced in 2011 and has undergone multiple amendments, with the final version watering down or dropping altogether sections regarded as discriminatory.
Israel has no constitution but instead passed over time a series of Basic Laws which have constitutional status. The nation state law is the 14th such basic law.
The issue of Israel as a Jewish state has become increasingly important in recent years and a key dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli prime minister has repeatedly insisted that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state in any final peace settlement. Benjamin Netanyahu argues that the Palestinians’ refusal to do so is the biggest obstacle to peace, saying it demonstrates that the Palestinians do not genuinely recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said he will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state, arguing that the Palestinians have long recognized the State of Israel and should not be expected to go further.
The law is important because it is hugely symbolic, and according to Israel’s large Arab minority, evidence that Israel is downgrading their status.
Israeli Arabs, many of whom identify as or with Palestinians, comprise about 20% of Israel’s 9 million-strong population.
Arabs have equal rights under the law but have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens and say they face discrimination and worse provision than Israeli Jews when it comes to services such as education, health and housing.
Israel is often accused by its fiercest critics of practicing a system akin to apartheid against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. Israel vehemently rejects the allegation as a smear tactic used by those who reject its very right to exist.