Author of controversial ‘Jewish State’ bill insists it’s unprejudiced and fair

T. Belman. The is no such thing as equality of values. Sooner or later a choice has to be made preferring one over the other. Israeli courts have long considered the value of democracy sacrosanct. They will continue to do so long after we have a Basic Law saying they are equal. The new law must establish the supremacy of the Jewish value. I see no problem in holding that the Jewish character of the state is the highest value. The whole idea of Zionism was to establish a Jewish state as opposed to a state of all its citizens or a democratic state. Being democratic should not be on an equal footing with being Jewish.

Avi Dichter has been working for six years on legislation to define Israel as a Jewish state. Now, with government backing, he says the controversial proposal is on its way to becoming law


Likud MK Avi Dichter leads a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset, on February 22, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

[..] “This time, it’s going to pass,” he insisted, a day after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted unanimously in favor of throwing coalition support behind the proposal.

Judaism is already mentioned throughout the country’s laws, and religious authorities control many aspects of life, including marriage. But the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions like the Knesset, the courts or the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character. The nation state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values on equal footing with democratic values.

According to the language of the bill, the law is needed “to protect the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.”

Read: The full text of MK Avi Dichter’s 2017 ‘Jewish State’ bill

Growing opposition

Despite vehement opposition from Arab and liberal-leaning MKs, the “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” bill began squarely in the political center. While Dichter’s abortive 2011 bill was the first to be proposed by a Knesset member, it was not the first draft of the proposal.

The Institute for Zionist Strategies, a small Jerusalem think tank made up of professors and former security officials, produced the first draft of the bill. In 2009, IZS published a paper on the subject, and in the 2009 elections, the call for a nation-state bill made it into Kadima’s official platform.

After the election, IZS scholars met with Dichter, who adopted the initiative eagerly. From the summer of 2009 through 2010, Dichter and the IZS worked to craft a final version of the bill before finally presenting it in the Knesset in the summer of 2011.

In the years since it was first proposed, however, it has been taken on as an ideological mission of the Israeli right and been derided by the left as the embodiment of insensitive and even segregationist policies toward the county’s Arab minority.

After Dichter’s 2011 legislation was shot down by Livni, and following his subsequent ousting from the Knesset in the 2013 elections, several attempts were made to revive the proposal, but all fell short of garnering full coalition support.

In 2014, after hardline versions of the bill were presented by Dichter’s fellow Kadima-turned-Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin and MK Yariv Levin (Likud), along with Jewish Home’s Ayelet Shaked, who is now justice minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed his own draft. Arguing that the state lacked “adequate expression” of Israel’s “existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” the prime minister presented the cabinet with 14 principles that were to form the basis of the legislation.

Ze'ev Elkin. (Flash90)

Although Netanyahu’s draft gained cabinet support, then-ministers Livni and Yair Lapid strongly opposed the bill and threatened to bolt the coalition over the issue, preventing the proposal from advancing to the Knesset.

After his reelection in March 2015, Netanyahu vowed that his new government would pass a softened version of the bill. But the proposal was again shelved after Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who chairs the coalition party Kulanu, reportedly expressed his opposition to it.

‘Jewish and democratic’
According to Dichter, the new version passed on Sunday includes several changes aimed at “widening the basis of support” for the bill and removing any suggestion of prejudice.

The first draft, he points out while holding both the original and updated versions, identified Israel only as “the national home of the Jewish people.” Democracy, however, did not constitute part of the state’s identity, but merely, in the words used by the bill, “its form of government.”

Passing the law would ‘constitute an overwhelming response to all those who deny the deep connection between the Jewish people and their land,’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says

“Some legal experts said it made the Jewish element seem more important, so we wrote it together, on one line, so neither will have preference over the other,” Dichter said. The new text, he stressed, is based the language of the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which, for the first time in Israeli law, described Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

“We have deliberated over every letter of this bill,” Dichter said, noting a months-long debate that resulted in changing the clause on the state calendar from “The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state” to “The Hebrew calendar is an official calendar of the State.” It is a phrase that is more comprehensive but still gives preference to the Jewish element, Dichter said.

And the changes seem to have worked: Kahlon dropped his original opposition and Kulanu ministers voted Sunday in favor of advancing the bill.

Netanyahu threw his own support behind the new bill on Monday, telling his Likud faction meeting that it “flies in the face of everyone who tries to deny our right to Israel.”

Passing the law would “constitute a decisive response to all those who deny the deep connection between the Jewish people and their land,” the prime minister said, adding that it would be brought to the Knesset within 60 days and he “expects all the Zionist parties to support it.”

According to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decision, the bill will not go forward as a private member’s bill, but will instead be formulated, within two months, as a government proposal, a move that will ease its passage through the Knesset. Dichter said he had been in regular contact with Netanyahu over the proposal and the prime minister had given his go-ahead for the bill to be presented now.

‘Declaration of war’

Responding to those who have said the proposal is discriminatory toward Israel’s Arab and other minority populations, Netanyahu said Monday that “there is absolutely no contradiction between the Jewish state bill and equal rights in Israel.”

‘Discrimination has received a legal stamp. The danger in this law in that it establishes two classes of citizen — Jewish and Arab, says Joint (Arab) List chair Ayman Odeh

Critics, however, say that the bill still gives preference to Jewish Israelis. Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh issued a harsh condemnation of the legislation, calling it 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.”

According to the language of the proposal, while every individual has the right “to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity,” the right to realize self-determination “is unique to the Jewish people.” In another controversial clause, Arabic is changed from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to language-accessible state services.” Notably, that clause was left out of Netanyahu’s 2014 version.

Dichter rejected the notion that his bill is discriminatory.

“It does not give preference to Jews over non-Jews. It gives preference to the Jewish state by preventing it from becoming something else,” he said emphatically. “It will not be Muslim and democratic, not Christian and democratic and not Hindu and Democratic. It is a Jewish and democratic state and everyone knows that.”

A sign in Jerusalem bears the name of the Emek Refaim Street in Hebrew, Arabic and English (photo credit: Flash90)

A sign in Jerusalem bears the name of the Emek Refaim Street in Hebrew, Arabic and English (Flash90)

Slamming the criticism of the Hebrew language clause, Dichter said it was “bullshit” to suggest his bill downgraded Arabic.

With no legislation defining the status of either Arabic or Hebrew, Israeli law relies on a British Mandate ruling defining both as official languages of Mandatory Palestine. “So we said, let’s just go with the current reality,” Dichter said. “Hebrew is the language of the state but Arabic should have a special status above other languages. And that’s exactly what we wrote.”

Garnering support, again
Despite Dichter’s assertions, the bill still has a distance to go before its final approval.

While Kulanu may have voted in favor in the Ministerial Committee, party spokesman Omri Arush told The Times of Israel that its lawmakers would only support the final government proposal if it “met the standards they required.” According to Arush, who declined to elaborate on what those standards were, Kulanu did not give the proposal a blank check and would have input into the final version.

If Kulanu were to withdraw support, Dichter would need once again to turn to his left-leaning colleagues on the opposition benches in order to gain a majority in the Knesset.

But opposition leader Isaac Herzog said at a press conference Monday that the current version of the bill “tramples on the delicate balance between Jewish and democratic.” Similarly, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said he supported the idea of a nation-state bill to define Israel as a Jewish state, but could not back the law in its current form.

Lapid and Herzog both said they supported a version of the law presented by Likud MK Benny Begin, which is just a short, paragraph-long declaration of the Jewish nature of the state.

Begin’s draft, which was presented in June 2015 and is based on a proposal by former Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon, strikes a more moderate tone than the original version, stating that “Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and upholds equal rights for all its citizens.”

It also asserts Israel as a democracy and calls for the anthem, flag and national symbol to be a matter of law. According to the legislation, the text is based on the 1948 Declaration of Independence and aims to embed Israeli symbols into Israel’s Basic Laws, giving them constitutional backing.

“If the coalition is serious and it really wants to pass a nation-state bill with wide support, then we will support it,” Lapid said.

On the specific changes required for Dichter’s bill to receive the support of the party, Yesh Atid MK Yael German told The Times of Israel that it would need to enshrine, in writing, “equal rights for all citizens.”

Dichter, responding directly to Lapid’s and Herzog’s statements, said that Begin’s bill reminded him of an Arabic adage that says “there is no point telling people there are fish in the sea.”

“Just to declare Israel as a Jewish state and nothing more — in my eyes it doesn’t say anything at all,” Dichter said.

Asked if he would be willing to incorporate any further changes to the bill during the government and Knesset deliberations, Dichter said that while he was happy with the current version, he has always sought a text that can appeal to as many people as possible.

“For six years I have been changing and softening this bill where I think it appropriate in order to widen the base of support,” he said. “This not Avi Dichter’s bill, it’s the State of Israel’s. At the end of the process it will not be in my bookshelf, it will be in the book of laws of Israel.”

May 10, 2017 | 12 Comments » | 89 views

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  1. I read the bill and it is pretty good!

    Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People

    1 — Basic principles

    A. The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which they realize their aspiration to self-determination in accordance with their cultural and historical heritage.

    B. The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

    C. The provisions of this Basic Law or any other legislation shall be interpreted in light of what is determined in this paragraph.

    2 — Purpose

    The purpose of this Basic Law is to defend the character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the State of Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.

    3 — The symbols of the state

    A. The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”

    B. The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.

    C. The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.

    4 — The capital

    Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.

    5 — Language

    A. The state’s language is Hebrew.

    B. The Arabic language has a special status, and its speakers have the right to language-accessible state services in their native language, as will be determined by the law.

    6 — Return

    Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the land [of Israel] and acquire citizenship of the State of Israel in accordance with the law.

    7 — Ingathering of the exiles

    The State shall act to gather in the exiles of Israel.

    8 — Connection to the Jewish people in the Diaspora

    A: The State shall act to strengthen the affinity between Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora.

    B: The State shall act to preserve the cultural and historic heritage of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.

    C: The State shall stretch out a hand to members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness.

    9 — Preserving heritage

    A. Every citizen of Israel, regardless of their religion or nationality, has the right to actively preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity.

    B. The State may allow a community, including followers of a single religion or members of a single nationality, to establish a separate communal settlement.

    10 — Official calendar

    The Hebrew calendar is an official calendar of the State.

    11 — Independence Day and memorial days

    A: Independence Day is the national holiday of the State.

    B. Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day are official memorial days of the State.

    12 — Days of rest

    The established days of rest in the State of Israel are the Sabbath and the festivals of Israel, during which no employee shall be employed except under conditions set in law. Members of [religious] community groups recognized by law may rest on their festivals.

    13 — Hebrew law

    Should the court encounter a legal question that demands a ruling and be unable to find an answer through [existing] legislation, legal precedent, or direct deduction, it shall rule in light of the principles of freedom, justice, integrity, and peace contained in the heritage of Israel.

    14 — Protection of holy site

    The holy sites shall be protected from desecration and all other harm, and from anything that may hinder access to their holy places for members of a religion, or that may offend their sentiments toward those places.

    15 — Immutability

    This Basic Law shall not be amended, unless by another Basic Law passed by a majority of Knesset members.

  2. Bear Klein Said:

    in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the State of Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state,

    The only reason for this law is to anchor the value that Israel is a Jewish state. There was no need to anchor the democratic value because it is already anchored in the Dignity law. So throwing in the anchoring of the democratic value changes nothing. There is no operative clause strengthening democratic values as basic to Israel, in this bill.

  3. Bear Klein Said:

    or that may offend their sentiments toward those places.

    This is highly problematic. The Muslims make a point of excluding Jews from the Temple Mount because “it offends their sentiments” toward the al Aksa Mosque or the Temple Mount which they believe is theirs to administer.

  4. @ Ted Belman:
    I read this English translation of the Hebrew written wording as making sure Jews can go to the Temple Mount.

    Also if you want to pass this law you will include wording on democracy or it will NOT pass.

    Dichter has rewritten or modified this bill numerous times via the years. This or something very similar is the only thing that could pass in the Knesset.

    It just passed its first reading 48 to 41. So many Knesset members do not even vote. Ridiculous.

  5. @ Ted Belman:

    As per Dichter’s agreement with the cabinet, the bill will not move forward for two more months, at which point a government proposal will be submitted, and the two will be merged.

    So in spite of it passing its first reading it is far from law. Who knows what will happen in two months and what the government will look like. For all we know Bibi will be indicted and the government will end up in limbo until new elections. If Yesh Atid gets in the next government such a bill would be even weaker towards protecting Jewish Law versus Democratic principles.

  6. The Arabs will squawk – don’t they always? – but they know that this bill will not change the fact that they enjoy more rights, freedoms and better quality of life than if they lived in any Arab state.

  7. I’m afraid I am in the fog on this one. Is Avi Dichter a lawyer? Why so many words, to express something so simple? I am never comfortable with this sort of thing.

    God instructed the Jewish people to discriminate: between the holy and unholy, between the clean and unclean, between the Jew and non-Jew. Lately, during my short lifetime, it’s become a “sin” to discriminate. That may make sense in legalese; but to my simple mind, it seems to directly contradict the commandment of God. Who rules Israel, anyway? God, or some mumbo-jumbo lawyers?

    Either Dichter is discriminating, which is good, or he is trying to create a new class of human, a “Jewntile”. He seems to be wanting to actually DO the former, while calling it the latter.

    I suppose it’s just a Jewish and Israeli problem, which I shouldn’t bother myself with; and that’s good enough for me. If someone can just convince the UN and such to do the same, we will have world peace.

    Shalom shalom shalom 🙂

  8. ‘With no legislation defining the status of either Arabic or Hebrew, Israeli law relies on a British Mandate ruling defining both as official languages of Mandatory Palestine.’
    the mandate ruling says trilingual HEBREW, Arabic and ENGLISH, ISRAELI money, stamps all are trilingual. today could be more Russian speak than arab speak.

  9. Where is the outrage over Saudi Arabia being an Islamic state or Iran being an Islamic state???No one has characterized any one of the dozens of Islamic states as apartheid states and demanded reform. Israel was created unapologetically as the nation state of the Jewish people – a return to their ancestral homeland and place where Jews would never again be vulnerable to annihilation as a minority population. The whole disingenuous debate over whether Israel is a democracy or an apartheid state is a sinister attempt to destroy Israel. Every nation state codifies their cultural values through laws. The Jewishness of Israel is foundational and can never be abolished or Israel ceases to exist.

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