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Israel 'nation-state' law prompts criticism around the world, including from U.S. Jewish groups

The American Jewish Committee, a prominent mainstream Jewish advocacy group, said it was "deeply disappointed" by the law.
Image: Protests against controversial 'Nationality Bill' in Tel Aviv
Israeli-Arab Knesset Member Ayman Odeh holds a signs reading "Equality" during a protest against the “nation-state” law in Tel Aviv before the measure passed. Abir Sultan / EPA

TEL AVIV — Israel’s new “nation-state” law, which was was celebrated as a “defining moment” for the country by its supporters, has prompted forceful protests inside the country and around the world.

The law, which narrowly passed early Thursday, declared among other provisions that only Jews have the right of self-determination in Israel. It was backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

It was enacted just after the 70th anniversary of the birth of the state of Israel and, among other things, strips Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew.

While the declaration of the country as a Jewish state “obviously makes sense,” according to Yohanan Plesner, the president of the independent think tank Israel Democratic Institute, excluding the concept of democracy is a fundamental flaw.

“The wording of the current bill and the way it was passed is harmful because it does not include the basic tenets and the basic components of the Jewish state as they have been defined over the past 70 years,” he said.

Image: Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Marc Israel Sellem / AFP - Getty Images

“A commitment to Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state, based on the values of the Declaration of independence, this commitment, this phrase does not appear in the legislation,” said Plesner. The law “tilts the balance, the delicate and correct balance, between the Jewish and democratic components of our national character.”

In the aftermath of the law's passage, Netanyahu told the Knesset that the law was "a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel."

Criticism emerged from some of Netanyahu's allies and, outside of Israel, longtime supporters of the country.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest and most prominent Jewish advocacy groups in the United States, said it was "deeply disappointed" by the law, and added it "put at risk the commitment of Israel's founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic."

Although its most controversial elements — such as enshrining in law the establishment of Jewish-only communities — were stripped before final passage, critics said that it institutionalizes discrimination against the country’s Arab minority. The American Jewish Committee said the clause in the bill saying “the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation” could be read as a euphemism for the clause that was removed.

Fourteen American Jewish organizations wrote opposition leader Isaac Herzog opposing the bill before those elements were removed.

The sharpest criticism came from Arab-Israeli legislators and citizens.

“This is a law that encourages not only discrimination, but racism as well,” said Yousef Jabareen, a member of parliament for the mainly Arab Joint List alliance. “The result of this legislation will be to perpetuate the inferior status of the Arabs in Israel.”

Israel’s Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population of 9 million.

"Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns in the country, that the state has declared that it does not want us here,” Joint List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, said in a statement read in Parliament. “It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”

Image: Knesset Member Ayman Odeh holds a sign reading "Equality"
Knesset Member Ayman Odeh holds a sign reading "Equality" during a protest against Israel's "Nationality Bill' in Tel Aviv on Saturday.Abir Sultan / EPA

Moshe Arens — a former defense minister, ambassador to the U.S. and a member of Netanyahu's Likud party — also criticized the bill, saying that by downgrading the status of Arabic it alienated the country's biggest minority and empowered radicals.

"The nation-state bill can only play into the hands of those extremists among Israeli Arab politicians who are doing their level best to prevent the successful integration of Israel’s Arab citizens into Israeli society and the Israeli economy," he wrote in an editorial that ran before the bill's passage.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief said the law also complicated efforts to craft a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

"We've been very clear when it comes to the two-state solution,” the E.U. official, Federica Mogherini, told reporters Thursday. “We believe it is the only way forward and any step that would further complicate or prevent this solution of becoming a reality should be avoided."

Talks aimed at establishing a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank have foundered, with Jewish settlements growing in the occupied West Bank and militant-controlled Gaza under Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv; Lawahez Jabari from Jerusalem; and F. Brinley Bruton from London.