Why Israel just passed a law that Arab leaders say creates “an apartheid state”

“I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy.”
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The Israeli parliament on Thursday passed a controversial law declaring that Israel is an exclusively Jewish state — legislation Arab leaders have denounced as “racist” and akin to creating “an apartheid state.”

The “nation-state” bill, which was passed by a 62-55 vote in the Knesset, says that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.”


The law strips Arabic of its designation as an official language, downgrading it to “special status,” and says advancing Jewish settlement is a national interest. A number of Arab lawmakers ripped up copies of the bill as the law was passed, and they were removed from the chamber as a result.

The bill was backed by the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called it a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel.”

The law has been widely criticized by the Arab community in Israel, who account for around 20 percent of the country’s 9 million people.

“I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy,” Ahmed Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, said after the vote.

Critics have also raised fears that the law would allow for the creation of Jews-only communities and increase religious animosity in the country.

“You can be a nation state and still be a democracy as long as you don’t discriminate. That the state is allowed to create villages that will separate on the basis of race or religion or nationality — this is outrageous,” Amir Fuchs, the head of the defending democratic values programme at the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Guardian.

Why pass the law?

According to former Shin Bet leader Avi Dichter, the law’s main proponent over the years, the legislation is a response to those who argue that the Jewish presence in Israel is temporary. Dichter said, “Contrary to the disinformation and fake news that have flooded [the conversation], the Basic Law does not hurt Israel’s minority cultures.”

After the law passed, Netanyahu told the Knesset: “This is our state — the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language and flag.”


Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called the new legislation “one of the most important laws ever to be passed by the Knesset.”

Why has it stirred so much anger?

But for Arabs living in Israel, most of whom are descended from the Palestinians who remained on their land after the 1948 war that occurred during the creation of the modern Israeli state, the law will only heighten their sense of alienation.

“I think this is racist legislation by a radical right-wing government that is creating radical laws and is planting the seeds to create an apartheid state,” Bassam Bisharah, 71, a doctor in the municipality of Ma’alot-Tarshiha where Jews and Arabs live together, told Reuters.

The most withering criticism of the new law came from the Joint List, an alliance of four Arab-dominated parties, who described it as “anti-democratic, colonialist, racist, and with clear characteristics of apartheid.”

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“The law has no mention of the word democracy or the word equality, and is wholly committed to brutish emphasis of ethnic supremacy, leaving no doubt that there are two types of citizenship — first-rate ones for Jews and second-rate ones for Arabs,” the alliance said.

In a statement issued after the law was passed, Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, said the legislation was about “advancing ethnic superiority by promoting racist policies.”


Hassan Jabareen, a human rights lawyer and founder of Adalah, similarly criticized the law: “The Jewish Nation-State Law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law.”

Could it have been worse?

While the legislation has angered Arabs in Israel, earlier drafts of the law would have gone much further.

Clauses that were removed at the last minute after objections by Israel’s president and the attorney general would have enshrined in law the establishment of Jewish-only communities, and instructed courts to rule according to Jewish ritual law when there were no relevant legal precedents.

In the end, a more vaguely worded version was approved, which says: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.”

Cover image: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he delivers a speech during an event following the first session of the newly elected Knesset on March 31, 2015 in Jerusalem. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)