Late on Wednesday night last week, Israel’s parliament passed the Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People law, in a 62-55 vote hailed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “defining moment.”
No ordinary piece of legislation, the new bill takes its place among Israel’s quasi-constitutional set of Basic Laws.
The new Basic Law defines “the state of Israel” as “the national home of the Jewish people”, and adds “the right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
When the law was passed, legislators representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens tore copies of the bill in protest. As they were expelled from the Knesset plenum, two of the deputies yelled at Mr Netanyahu: “You passed an apartheid law, a racist law.”
Israel has, of course, always defined itself as a “Jewish state” – its Declaration of Independence for example, does not refer to “democracy” once, but repeatedly refers to a “Jewish state.” Which begs the question to what extent this law represents continuity or a break with law and practice to date.
Israel’s institutional discrimination against Palestinian citizens is well-documented, including by the US State Department, and a host of independent rights experts. This discrimination impacts on many areas of life, including where citizens can live, family life and more.
Nevertheless, this law does indeed constitute a new development, effectively doubling down on longstanding inequality.
“By defining sovereignty and democratic self-rule as belonging solely to the Jewish people – wherever they live around the world”, responded Hassan Jabareen, general director of Haifa-based legal rights center Adalah, “Israel has made discrimination a constitutional value.”
Why now? One factor is that Mr. Netanyahu is thinking ahead to probable elections this year. Thus far, his Likud party has looked strong in the polls, but Mr Netanyahu wants to ensure there is no loss of votes even further to his right, such as to current coalition partner Jewish Home.
The law’s origins however, go further back, and reflect something more fundamental: resistance to demands for equality from Palestinian citizens.
The road to last night’s Knesset vote arguably began with proposals in 2011 by Likud’s Avi Dichter; at the time, the then-Kadima MK (Knesset member) said such a law would help thwart the aspirations of those seeking to “establish a binational state here.”
After the successful vote, Dichter declared the law was the “clearest answer” to Palestinian legislators and explained: “We are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizen [sic].”
Indeed, it was only last month that a draft bill calling for Israel to be a state of all its citizens – as opposed to a “Jewish state” – was not even allowed to be debated in the Knesset.
What about the new Basic Law’s impact? For Palestinian citizens it could herald harsher, more explicit discrimination. One particular clause, for example, asserts the state will “act to encourage and promote its [Jewish settlement] establishment and consolidation.”
Already excluded from hundreds of Israeli communities by residential admission committees, Palestinian citizens will rightly suspect this article – originally worded as a far cruder endorsement of segregation – can only intensify the discrimination they face over land and housing.
The new law is also a fresh obstacle to a genuine two-state solution – as if any more were needed. The Palestinian leadership has always resisted Israeli premiers’ demand to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” as a condition for talks. This law only confirms how such opposition is well-grounded.
Moreover, the reference to a “land of Israel” in which “the state of Israel was established” is an instructive turn of phrase, and a timely reminder a law which discriminates against Palestinian citizens could also prove significant if or when Israel annexes part, or all, of the occupied West Bank.
There is, however, one chink of hope in the passage of the law. Through its brazen ethnonationalism and clear discriminatory impact, the Basic Law is bringing to the fore politics and practices Palestinians have always experienced at the hands of the self-defined “Jewish state.”
The hubris of Israel’s right may thus play an important role in galvanizing civil society actors and policy makers into action, and taking steps towards much needed, and delayed, accountability.