Ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government on Sunday endorsed a controversial bill to enshrine Israel's character as a Jewish state despite criticism that it would leave the country's one-fifth Arab minority as second-class citizens.
Among other things, the bill downgrades Arabic from its current status as an official language of the state to that of "special" language to make government services accessible to the country's Arab citizens.
Entitled "Israel — The Nation-State of the Jewish People," the bill declares that "the right to realize national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people."
If passed by the parliament, the legislation would become part of Israel's quasi-constitutional series of "Basic Laws" and require a special majority to repeal.
The purpose of the bill is to "protect the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people," said a statement from Avi Dichter, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud Party. Dichter argued that none of Israel's 11 Basic Laws deals with the identity or definition of the Israeli state.
The bill is a watered-down version of past proposals for a "nation-state" law that were abandoned amid criticism that they would prioritize Israel's Jewish identity over its democratic values. The adoption of the current proposal by the government's ministerial committee on legislation gives the bill momentum as it heads to Israel's parliament, the Knesset.
Efforts to pass such a bill follow demands by Netanyahu in peace talks that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The bill is a "law to protect the majority while trampling on the rights of the minority," tweeted Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List parliamentary faction, which represents most of the country's Arab citizens. "The tyranny of the majority is turning us into second-class citizens."
Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and a vice president at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the proposal gives short shrift to democratic values necessary to put Arab citizens on equal footing.
"I can see why people want to say we are a Jewish nation-state, but if we do that we have to promise our 20% Arab minority that we will treat them equally," Stern said. "And that promise has to be made in a Basic Law."
Mitnick is a special correspondent.