News Analysis |
In July, Israel declared itself a Jewish state via a law passed by its parliament. This move was widely criticized not only in Israel but throughout the world as well. The media in Western countries did briefly cover the passing of the law but not it seems the subject is not interesting enough anymore. The real issue, however, is what this law means for the state of Israel and its minorities in the long run.
The law was passed 62-55 with two abstentions. One member of Israel’s parliament, or Knesset as it’s called, was absent. Representatives of the people in the Knesset seem to be divided on this issue. This is reflective of the sharp polarization this law has helped ignite in Israeli society. Israel has a total population of about 9 million, 21 percent of which are Arab Israelis.
It may seem to be only declaratory in nature but the fact of the matter is that the spirit of future laws enacted in Israel will inevitably be affected by the law. Right-wing parties bent on playing exclusionary politics will find solid legal ground in the Knesset.
Needless to say, Arabs form a sizable minority in Israel. These citizens are represented in the Knesset via 120 seats. At the moment, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ruling coalition has 66 seats while the opposition has 54. The ruling coalition and the opposition are formed by over a dozen political parties of varied strengths. The Knesst has de jure parliamentary supremacy, meaning that it can pass any law with simple majority even if that law contradicts the basic laws which lay the foundation of the state of Israel.
Israel does not have a written constitution. Instead, from time to time, basic laws are passed by the Knesset which have the same force as that of a constitution. Many of these laws are based on the concept of Individual liberties enshrined in the Israel Declaration of Independence of 1948.
For example, in the 1990s, two laws were passed in 1992-the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law. According to these two laws, “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free; these rights shall be upheld in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.”
The recent basic law passed by the Knesset had been in the works for over 7 years and has gone through multiple amendments. It is the 15th basic law in Israel. The text of the law states that ‘the right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.’ It has 11 provisions in total. Clause 4 states that the state’s language is Hebrew will Arabic has a special status.
The law was passed 62-55 with two abstentions. One member of Israel’s parliament, or Knesset as it’s called, was absent. Representatives of the people in the Knesset seem to be divided on this issue.
It also states the state of Israel shall act within the diaspora to strengthen affinity between the state of Israel and members of the Jewish people. Perhaps, most significantly, there is a separate clause for Jewish settlement which will be promoted as a national value. Thus, the emphasis is entirely on protecting the Jewish identity. Prime Minister Netanyahu says “This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel.” ”We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence,” he said.
Netanyahu’s party, Likud, has come under increasing criticism for embracing illiberal politics. Incidentally, he has also been investigated under corruption charges. Police in Israel have recommended filing charges of bribery against the Israeli Prime Minister. Unprecedented support by the US under Donald Trump also seems to have strengthened Bibi Netanyahu’s hand in the Knesset. Furthermore, the global shift in politics towards the right also seem to favor the new basic law passed.
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Unlike regular laws, the basic laws act as guiding principles in enacting and passing future laws. They are much more difficult to repeal. The Supreme Court in Israel doesn’t really question the validity or nature of these basic laws. The laws that will be passed in the future keeping in view the fact that ‘national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people’ and not to all citizens are going to be a real cause of concern. It’s not a surprise that minority figures in Israel have expressed frustration over passing of the law.
It also states the state of Israel shall act within the diaspora to strengthen affinity between the state of Israel and members of the Jewish people.
Critics argue the passage of this law will harm the already fragile balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority in Israel. Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, which holds 13 seats and is the third-largest bloc in Parliament, waved a black flag in protest. Yael German, a lawmaker from the opposition party Yesh Atid, called the law “a poison pill for democracy.” Ahmad Tabibi, a veteran Arab lawmaker declared the law ‘the end of democracy’.
Adala (‘justice’ in Arabic), an independent human rights organization and a legal center campaigning for Arab rights in Israel said in a statement,” [the law] entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism, and systemic inequality.’
Various other experts and political observers have expressed concern over the direction Israeli politics is set to take under this new basic law. It may seem to be only declaratory in nature but the fact of the matter is that the spirit of future laws enacted in Israel will inevitably be affected by the law. Right-wing parties bent on playing exclusionary politics will find solid legal ground in the Knesset.