Human Rights Student Journalists

‘Joint List’ Parliamentarians Cite ‘Equality’ As Reason For Rejecting Jewish Nation-State

By Atara Shields | The Media Line

June 10, 2018

Israel's parliament, The Knesset (Photo: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

Arab-Israeli Balad Party threatens to petition international body after Israeli parliament shuts down bill

Israel’s parliament last week torpedoed a bill aiming to redefine the state of Israel as a nation “of all its citizens” as opposed to the homeland of the Jewish people. The proposed legislation was introduced by the Joint List, a coalition of the four Arab-majority parties. Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein called the move “preposterous,” and for the first time in his five-year tenure called on the presidium (a group comprising the Speaker and his deputies that has the last word on agenda items) to disqualify the bill.

Recently, members of Israel’s governing coalition have been pressing to pass the so-called “nation-state” bill, which seeks to reinforce Israel’s “Jewishness” by modifying the country’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. After passing the first of three required readings in May by a vote of 64-50, the bill is not expected to continue on to the next stages during the current parliamentary session.

“The [nation-state] bill is just trying to push forward the agenda of the right-wingers in Israel,” Professor Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute contended to The Media Line. “There’s no need for it, it will not serve any purpose,” he added, noting that Israel has been recognized as the Jewish state since its founding in 1948.

Moreover, the text of the legislation has undergone a series of changes and now omits the word “democracy,” which some argue is equally fundamental to Israel’s identity than its Jewish nature.

The Joint List’s bill—seemingly a counter-measure to the proposed “nation-state” initiative—was geared towards “anchor[ing] in constitutional law the principle of equal citizenship while recognizing the existence and rights of the two, Jewish and Arab, national groups living within the country.”

In order for Israel to be a real “democratic regime,” the text read, it must treat Arabs, who make up over twenty percent of the country’s population, equal to Jews. The legislation stipulated that this include a formal separation between religion and state and the cancellation of the Right of Return, a law granting all Jews automatic Israeli citizenship.

After the bill’s thwarting, the Balad party, which sponsored it, threatened to file a complaint with the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organization of parliaments.

In an email to The Media Line, the IPU wrote that it “does not intervene in national matters,” however, the body does have a committee that examines alleged violations of the human rights of parliamentarians and provides services to those lawmakers deemed to have been abused.

“Balad see[s] the rejection of the bill as a severe step that reflects extremism in relation to democratic demands…and [that causes] severe harm to freedom of expression,” the party conveyed in a statement.

By promoting the “equality” bill, Arab parliamentarians are “trying to make a point,” according to Stern. “I think [Jewish] Israelis should be strong enough and generous enough and self-secured enough to discuss everything,” he affirmed.

Civil equality in Israel is premised on the equal allocation of resources between Jews and non-Jews, and the government is currently undertaking a five-year, $4.2 billion plan to enhance the educational prospects of Arab-Israelis as well as to improve infrastructure in their towns and villages.

“[Equality] should be achieved no matter what,” Stern stressed, “because we are democratic and because we are Jewish, and it is a Jewish notion to treat everyone equally.”

While he believes that the civil rights of Israeli non-Jews must be strengthened, Stern nevertheless qualified that there is no reason why this cannot happen within the framework of a “Jewish state.”

“I think Jews should be allowed to have one public space on the whole planet that will be characterized by Jewish life and Jewish culture,” he concluded.

(Atara Shields is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)

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