Israel accused of racism after passing ‘divisive nation-state law

Opponents denounce bill as ‘apartheid’

Benjamin Netanyahu said the law’s passage is ‘pivotal’. Photo: AP
Benjamin Netanyahu said the law’s passage is ‘pivotal’. Photo: AP

Israel’s parliament has passed a divisive law declaring that only Jews have the right to “national self-determination” in Israel, prompting angry accusations from Arab citizens that the government is formally codifying racism.

The law, known as the nation state bill, passed by a narrow 62-55 margin early yesterday morning after hours of fractious debate between MPs in the chamber of the Knesset.

While Israel is known around the world as the only Jewish state, its own laws have never formally classified it as a state for Jews. The nation state bill describes Israel for the first time as “the national home of the Jewish people”.

“The right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” the law states.

The law downgrades Arabic so it is no longer an official language of Israel and declares that Jerusalem “complete and united” is the country’s capital.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and his right-wing coalition government supported the bill. Mr Netanyahu praised the law’s passage as a “pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the state of Israel”.

“This is our state – the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being,” he said.

Around 20pc of Israel citizens are of Palestinian origin, known sometimes as Palestinian citizens of Israel or as Arab-Israelis. Arab-Israeli MPs angrily denounced the bill as “an apartheid law” and tore copies of its text into pieces after it passed.

“The state has declared that it does not want us here. It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens,” said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the mostly Arab Joint List party.

Israel’s Labour Party and other opposition parties also voted against the bill.

The nation state bill will become one of Israel’s Basic Laws, legislation that essentially forms the country’s constitution. The other Basic Laws describe the structure of the Israeli government but do not weigh in on the country’s Jewish character.

The bill was watered down from earlier versions and several of its most controversial provisions were changed.

One clause would have allowed Jewish towns to refuse to allow Arabs or Muslims to live in them. In practice, segregation of housing is widespread in Israel but it has never been codified in law.

Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, made a rare direct intervention into domestic politics to oppose the housing section, saying it could “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the state of Israel”.

The housing clause was removed shortly before the vote.

Arabic and Hebrew were previously both official languages of Israel, a hangover of British law in Palestine which Israel adopted in 1948. The new law says Hebrew is the only official language and downgrades Arabic to “a special status in the state”.

The law also includes a confusing clause saying the legislation “does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect”.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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