The special committee to pass the Basic Law: Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People held a stormy inaugural meeting Wednesday.
“This committee is meant to write a foundational document that will establish what the State of Israel is, what is its character, and in what light will state authorities and institutions function,” committee chairman Amir Ohana (Likud) said. “Whoever says this bill is racist is saying that Zionism is racism…It is the natural right of the Jewish People to be like every other nation and stand on its own in its sovereign state.”
“Are we strong enough as a society to gather around the joint Zionist ethos and define it?” Ohana asked.
The nation-state bill anchors Israel’s status as the Jewish nation-state in a law meant to be part of Israel’s eventual constitution. It includes state symbols, Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Law of Return, and more.
Its more controversial elements include an article declaring Hebrew to be the language of the state but that all government materials must be available in Arabic, and another that principles of Jewish heritage should serve as inspiration to the judiciary.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly backs the bill and has repeatedly and publicly spoken in its favor. He was supposed to attend Wednesday’s meeting, but canceled minutes before it began because of security-related meetings.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who attended the meeting, gave an overview of how it compares to other countries in the world, saying that most constitutions have an introductory section that defines national values, the anthem, symbol, language and more.
“Everyone can put the content that they want into the bill and do serious work,” Shaked encouraged the MKs. “Our country is Jewish and democratic and I believe those are two parallel values. The democratic values of the state are already anchored in Basic Laws, and I think that there is a great opportunity here to do the same with the Jewish ones…We can make history here.”
Ohana vowed to take minorities into consideration and said that individual human rights will be fully protected, but that only the Jewish People have national rights in the Land of Israel.
Many in the opposition had doubts about that.
Joint List chairman Aiman Odeh said: “We didn’t come to Israel, Israel came to us. Our language is part of this space, of our homeland…No apartheid law will erase the fact that there are two nations here.”
MK Tzipi Livni (Joint List) called, in an impassioned speech, for the word “equality” to be added to the bill.
“The Declaration of Independence is this country’s birth certificate and its identification card, and it establishes that Israel is the state of the Jewish People that will have equal rights for its citizens without differences of religion, race or gender,” she said. “This bill…is meant to turn Israel from the nation-state of the Jewish People to a religious state. You want to create divisions and hatred…We will fight for the values that we teach our children.”
MK Avi Dichter (Likud), who proposed the bill, responded to the arguments, saying that there is no law defining the country’s basic identity.
“When you go and call this bill ‘fascist’ – Listen, this isn’t the only Basic Law in the country,” he pointed out.
Dichter slammed the opposition for “hypocrisy,” pointing out that when Livni was Kadima chairwoman, many of the party’s MKs – including himself – sponsored the bill.