Nation-State Law Explainer

The Israel Democracy Institute Answers Your Questions

Illustration | Flash 90

What is the Nation-State Bill?

The Nation-State Bill is a Basic Law that, for the first time, anchors in law Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people.” Among its 11 clauses, the bill defines such things as state symbols like the flag and national anthem, the official language, national holidays, the Sabbath, the capital Jerusalem, relations with the Diaspora, and of Jewish settlement. As a Basic Law with quasi-constitutional status (Israel, famously, does not have a constitution or a bill of rights) the bill will guide judicial interpretations of the law and shape future legislation. Although the law can, in theory, be altered or repealed by a future Knesset, changes would require a majority of 61 members, as opposed to a regular majority of members present, as is the case for regular laws. In general, Basic Laws, once passed, are more difficult to repeal than regular legislation.

So what’s the problem? #1 - No mention of democracy or equality

Opponents of the bill note that there is no mention anywhere in the bill—nor in any other Basic Law, for that matter— of the term “equality.” They argue that a Basic Law that seeks to define the character of the state but fails to anchor the principle of civic equality is deeply problematic for any democracy. Because of the need to guarantee minority rights, almost all nation-states in the world include an explicit commitment to the value of equality in their constitution or other core legislation. Israel’s Declaration of Independence contains an explicit guarantee of this sort. Moreover, the bill omits any mention of Israel's democratic character, thereby calling into question the existing "Jewish and democratic" formula that appears in previous Basic Laws. Opponents of the bill argue that this deficiency may lead to privileging Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one, with a broad set of ramifications on everything from education policy to religion and state. Proponents, on the other hand, contend that the existing Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character. Therefore, the present bill was necessary to anchor Israel’s Jewish character in constitutional law.

So what’s the problem? #2 – Majority-Minority Relations

The Nation-State Bill contains two clauses that affect the standing of Israel’s non-Jewish minority groups, especially Arab-Israelis who make up 20 percent of the population. First, the bill effectively downgrades the status of the Arabic language in Israel – from the second official state language (alongside Hebrew) to one holding “special status” in the state. Hebrew is now Israel’s sole official language. Second, the bill includes a clause stating that Israel will act to “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement around the country. According to some interpretations, this could lead to discrimination on the basis of nationality in the allocation of land and resources.

So what’s the problem? #3 – Relations with Diaspora Jewry

The Nation-State Bill defines one of Israel’s core purposes: as a sanctuary for Jews all over the world, a physical location for the ingathering of exiles, and as a guarantor of Jewish safety and security. And yet the clauses having to do with strengthening Israel’s connection to the broader Jewish people call on the state “to act within the Diaspora” – but not, significantly, within Israel. Opponents of the bill point out that this could encourage Israeli governments – already under enormous political pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties – to make decisions that affect the entire Jewish people, without considering their ramifications on Diaspora Jewry. Thus, they contend, a law that purports to strengthen Israel’s Jewish identity could end up undermining the unity of the Jewish People.

What are the bill’s supporters saying?

The Nation-State Bill passed on July 19, 2018 on a partisan basis with a 62-55 majority in the Knesset. Supporters of the bill hailed it as a “pivotal moment” in Jewish and Israeli history. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “122 years after Herzl articulated his vision, we enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. A nation state that respects the individual rights of all its citizens; and in the Middle East, only Israel respects these rights. This is our state, the state of the Jews. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to cast doubt on this, and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights. Today we etched in the stone of law: This is our state, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag.” Dismissing various criticisms of the bill, Netanyahu asserted prior to its passage that individual rights would continue to be protected under Israeli democracy, but that “the majority has rights too, and the majority rules.”

What are the bill’s opponents saying?

From Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog to President Reuven Rivlin to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the bill's numerous opponents expressed concern about the damage it might cause to Israel’s international standing and to Jews all over the world; others were worried about the repercussions of promoting Israel’s Jewish identity at the expense of its democratic values – especially with regard to minority rights. MK Benny Begin (Likud), who abstained from the vote, worried that the bill moved Israel “from nationalism to chauvinism.”