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Is Israel Jewish first or democratic first? This new bill may force Israelis to choose.

Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Israel is, as most people know, the world's only majority Jewish state. A bill advanced by Israel's cabinet on Sunday wants to make the state's Jewish status super-official, legally defining Israel as "the national state of the Jewish people." And huge numbers of Israelis are furious about it — to the point where a full vote on the law might even bring down Israel's ruling government.

Why is a law defining the Jewish state as Jewish so controversial? For one thing, there's a sizable non-Jewish Arab minority in the country. For another, this bill challenges the delicate balance between Israel's two basic, and at times contradictory, identities: as a Jewish and democratic state. Here's what you need to know to understand the controversy.

What does the nation-state law do?

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Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin, the drafter of an early version of the nation-state bill. (Ze'ev Elkin's office)

The new law is basically the Israeli equivalent of a constitutional amendment. Israel doesn't have a formal constitution, but a code — called the Basic Laws — serves as one in practice. If passed, the Jewish state law would be the newest Basic Law.

The final text of the bill isn't yet set: the version the cabinet advanced on Sunday will not be the final bill voted on by the Knesset (Israel's parliament). The final bill will be based on a set of principles put forward by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The core of Netanyahu's proposal is defining Israel as "the national state of the Jewish people." Beyond that, the principles don't come attached to a whole lot of immediately practical provisions. They specify Israel's national anthem, sets the Jewish calendar as Israel's national calendar, and several other similar things, but otherwise don't make major changes to the way Israeli law works.

Immediately, "the proposed basic law will effect little tangible change," Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and critic of the law, writes. But it's the long-term implications for Israeli law and society that have people worried.

Why is this bill so controversial?

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Israeli police detain an Arab-Israeli man in Kfar Kana. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Defenders of the law see it as merely codifying an obvious truth: Israel is a Jewish state. But critics see it as a means of eroding Israel's democracy, and smuggling discrimination and even outright racism into the Basic Laws.

Israel is about 75 percent Jewish. The bulk of the remainder are Muslims, though there are also smaller Christian and Druze communities. Defining Israel as a Jewish state, from the critics' point of view, defines Israel as a state that excludes that non-Jewish minority. As Scheindlin puts it, "the law is making exclusivity and inequality part of Israel's legal DNA."

Defenders of the law have tried to address this criticism. For instance, one of Netanyahu's proposed principles also states, "the State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law."

Critics see this as a smokescreen. They argue that defining Israel as a state for Jews, with provisions that define Jewish law as a "source of inspiration" for the Knesset, would change the way the Basic Laws would be seen — inclining courts to privilege the State's Jewish character over its democratic one.

"Certain aspects of the proposals in the bill would substantially change the principle of constitutional law as anchored in the Proclamation of Independence and the Basic Laws of the Knesset [in a way that would hurt the] democratic character of the state," Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said.

Basically, critics say, you can't have a state that's democratic and that formally defines itself as a state for only a subset of its citizens. Israel is already a Jewish state because it has a large Jewish majority. This law puts Israel down a road where minorities — particularly Arab Muslims — would be pushed out of political life.

Will the law pass?

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Tzipi Livni (L) and Yair Lapid (R). (Jim Hollander/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not clear. The key players here are the centrist parties in Netanyahu's coalition, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Tzipi Livni's Hatnua. Without their support, Netanyahu almost certainly wouldn't have the votes to pass a bill.

Both Lapid and Livni have expressed deep concerns about the bill passed on Sunday. If they vote against it, there's a very strong chance Netanyahu would dismiss their parties from the government, forcing a new coalition or potentially even new elections.

However, there's no guarantee the leaders and their parties actually will vote against the government bill in the full Knesset. Lapid, for his part, has said that he supports some kind of nation-state bill in principle. So the vote to define Israel as a Jewish nation-state is, as of right now, totally up for grabs.

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