Cabinet to Vote on 'Jewish State' Law Today

Tensions high throughout the political system before monumental vote on 'Jewish State Law'; leftist MKs fume.

Tova Dvorin ,

Full Knesset session
Full Knesset session
Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

The Israeli cabinet looks likely to accept the "Jewish State" law today (Sunday) in what will be a landmark vote.

According to a compromise reached between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud) and MKs Ze'ev Elkin (Likud), Yariv Levin (Likud), and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), the government will vote on two of the bills falling under the umbrella proposal to make Israel the official Jewish state, and in exchange for the three Mks agreeing to merge their versions of the bills with "lighter" versions proposed by Netanyahu.

The two bills by the three MKs, which are similar in their principles, effectively raise the Jewish influence on the legal system, elevating it over the "democratic" elements of Israel's identity as a "democratic and Jewish state."

The proposal, in practice, would see Hebrew defined as the only official language and Arabic relegated to a language with "special status"; concretize the Jewish star and holidays as national symbols and holidays; and define Israel as a state which "endeavors to settle Jews within its borders" - leaving out Israeli Arabs, detractors claim. 

Netanyahu's counter-proposal would reduce the law's efficacy to make the Jewish elements of the law equal to - but not higher than - the "democratic" character of Israel, and emphasizes that "the State will allow anyone in Israel, regardless of religion, race, or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, and identity." It also leaves out the definition of Hebrew as the official language and the clause on Jews settling within its borders. 

The compromise follows the decision of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) to strip the proposals from the Ministerial Committee of Legislation agenda - a controversial move which sparked outrage from many supporters, and most vocally from Jewish Home. Netanyahu countered this move by using his premier status to override the veto, and pushed the bill to the Knesset plenum. 

Detractors of the compromise have complained since that Netanyahu's proposal has stripped the main points from the Jewish State Law, he as effectively turned the proposal to cement a greater Jewish presence in the State of Israel into political babble. 

Final words, big vote

In the meantime, MKs and other political officials - mainly those against the Law in any incarnation - have struggled to express their final opinions on the bill ahead of the controversial vote. 

"Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. I will defend the values of the State of Israel as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, and I will not let those laws be harmed under my nose," Livni wrote on Facebook Saturday night. "[I] support the constitution which anchors these values, and I will oppose any procedure to harm or distort them - as does the dangerous and anti-Zionist bill from Elkin, or any similar proposal which changes the political system at the expense of those values." 

Finance Minister and MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) agreed. 

"We are not against the idea of Jewish state law because it is a Jewish state and should be [declared so]," he said. "But it needs to be a democratic country [too]." 

"The law is badly worded, and is intended only for the Likud primaries," he claimed. "This is a law that David Ben-Gurion would not have approved, this law would be one that Menachem Begin opposed with all his heart, this is a law Ze'ev Jabotinsky would not have approved."

Lapid added that the proposal not only places Israeli Arabs, but also the Druze and other minorities, into awkward positions. 

"Today I spoke with the family of [murdered Druze police officer - ed.] Zidan Seif, who died defending the Jewish worshippers at the Har Nof synagogue," he noted. "What can we say to them? 'The deceased is a second-class citizen?!'"

MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) claimed that the Bill is "harmful to immigrants."

"This version of the Jewish State law once again hurts immigrants who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, but who are not Jewish according to Jewish law," Razvozov said. "The law will continue to paint them as second-class citizens in Israel."

"For several years, about half a million immigrants who are not Jewish according to Jewish law and their families have immigrated, and are discriminated against in Israel just because they cannot get married here like everyone else, to be buried like everyone else, and live in their own state - the state of the Jewish people like everyone else," he continued. "The Israeli government cannot continue to ignore them and must not approve the law until it corrects this version."

Razvozov qualified that the legal principles, at least, are sound. 

"The basic 'Jewish state' law is right and good," he said. "But I am convinced that you can form a better wording of the law that will not harm the integration of immigrants to Israel and that will not harm the democratic right to live as a Jew, even if you are not Jewish under Orthodox standards."

Legal issue or hot air?

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein stated Friday that the Jewish State Law is "problematic" and that he is "very concerned" over the legality of such a bill. 

The bills, according to Weinstein, "constitute a real change in the basic principles of constitutional law as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws, and they [the bills] serve to flatten the democratic characteristics of the country." 

The details of the bills dabble in "existential issues," he added, saying that it is "inappropriate" for the government to ratify them into law. He stated, as well, his concerns over the bills promoting rights "only for Israeli citizens."

Levin ripped apart Weinstein's analysis Sunday, calling the criticism "condescending" and inexpert. 

"The statement of the Attorney General is a condescending statement that has no nothing to do with his role as legal counsel or the legal world," Levin fired. "The question of the character of the state and the fundamental values on which it should continue to be built, should given in a democracy only to the public through its elected representatives in the Knesset and in the government, and in no way can it become be the private domain of a handful of lawyers who try to put themselves above the rest."