In a 62–55 vote (with two abstentions), the Knesset—Israel’s legislature—passed a controversial “nation-state” law on July 19, 2018, that critics immediately condemned as “an apartheid bill.” The law declares that “the state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people” and “the actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
The law establishes Israel’s national symbols, designates Hebrew as the state’s official language—downgrading Arabic, which had been an official language for more than 70 years, to “special status”—and claims the “unified and complete” city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The city is home to some of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam, and most countries do not recognize it as Israel’s capital. This included the United States up until earlier this year when the Trump Administration made the controversial decision to move the American embassy in Israel to the holy city.
The law also asserts that Israel “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment,” though that line is a scaled-back version of the original language. As Reuters explained, “clauses that were dropped in last-minute political wrangling—and after objections by Israel’s president and 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.”
[Related from the Washington Post: “Is Israel an ‘apartheid’ state? This U.N. report says yes.”]
The development of Jewish settlements outside of Israel proper has been ongoing for years and has resulted in the continued demolition of Arab villages, the displacement of Palestinian families, the partitioning and bisecting of Palestinian land and the fracturing of Palestinian communities. These settlements are illegal under the terms of the 4th Geneva Convention which prohibits an occupying force from transplanting populations into an occupied territory (i.e. colonizing the area).
“Israel is now openly and unblushingly a racist, apartheid state,” said human rights activist and former British diplomat Craig Murray after the vote.
Arab lawmakers ripped up paper copies of the legislation in protest, then were forced to leave the Knesset hall. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the “Joint List,” a coalition of Israel’s four Arab-dominated political parties, said in a statement that Israel has “declared it does not want us here,” and that it “passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the U.S.-based Jewish Voices for Peace, tweeted: “Congrats Israel, you played yourself. Enshrining apartheid into law for all the world to see.”
“I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy,” Ahmed Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, told journalists. Tibi and fellow Arab legislator Ayeda Touma-Souliman confronted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the vote, according to Haaretz, saying, “You passed an apartheid law, a racist law.”
“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens,” Netanyahu responded. “This is our country, the Jewish state. In recent years there have been those who have tried to undermine that and question the principles of our existence. Today we made it into law: This is the country, the language, the anthem, and flag.”
About 1.8 million Arabs live in Israel today. The majority are the descendants of Palestinians who stayed on their land during and after the creation of Israel—which displaced some 750,000 Palestinians during a traumatic, forced eviction movement Palestinians call “Al Nakba,” or “The Catastrophe.” Arabs make up about 20 percent of the population of Israel proper.
“Those who remained have full equal rights under the law but say they face constant discrimination, citing inferior services and unfair allocations for education, health and housing,” Reuters noted. Critics warn that “the new law will deepen a sense of alienation within the Arab minority.”
Millions of Palestinians also live under military occupation and military law within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The military law that governs Palestinians in the OPT has resulted in brutal conditions for Palestinians. Gaza has been under blockade for more than a decade now, and human rights groups have likened the situation there to the largest open-air prison camp in the world.
In a sardonic summation, Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah tweeted: “I welcome passage of Israel’s new ‘nation-state law’ which serves to clarify, for any who were confused, the apartheid and racist nature of the occupying entity since it usurped the land of Palestine 70 years, 2 months and 5 days ago.”