A Change in Wording Sparks Huge Controversy in Israel

The question of whether the country is "Jewish and democratic" or the "national home of the Jewish people" has divided the country's cabinet.

Jim Hollander/Reuters

Is Israel a "Jewish and democratic" state? Or is it "the national homeland of the Jewish people?" This academic-sounding question sparked a huge controversy on Sunday, when the Israeli cabinet voted to amend the country's Basic Law to refer to the state as "the national homeland of the Jewish people." Since Israel's founding in 1948, the Basic Law has always referred to the state as "Jewish and democratic."

The proposed change comes out of three pieces of legislation drafted by members of the Israeli cabinet and approved by lawmakers 15 to 7. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a supporter of the initiative, said the shift would not undermine the country's long-held democratic traditions.

"There are those who would like the democratic to prevail over the Jewish and there are those who would like the Jewish to prevail over the democratic," he said. "Both of these values are equal and both must be considered to the same degree."

But critics of the proposed bill allege that it codifies discrimination against Israeli Arabs, who comprise 20 percent of the country's population. A version of the bill would delist Arabic as one of Israel's national languages, instead relegating it as one with a "special status," and would also reaffirm the sole right of Israel's Jewish citizens to national self-determination.

In an unusually contentious meeting featuring audible shouting from behind closed doors, Israel's cabinet supported the law by a vote of 14 to 6. Afterwards, several members lashed out in opposition. Finance Minister Yair Lapid called the proposed change a "bad law, which is badly worded." Others accused Netanyahu of political motives. The prime minister faces primary elections within his Likud Party in January, and some say that the bill is aimed to woo the party's nationalist right-wing.

Isaac Herzog, the head of Israel's left-wing Labor Party, claimed that the bill was an unnecessary, reactionary provocation.

"Only a prime minister lacking in self-confidence, without a vision and a plan, needs laws that deal with the obvious that will not improve any Israeli citizens' lives."

The controversy over the bill comes at a moment of heightened tension in Israel. The fatal police shooting of a young Palestinian man on November 10 in northern Israel sparked widespread protests and a general strike, and last week, two Palestinians armed with guns and meat cleavers attacked Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in west Jerusalem, killing four and injuring eight. In response, Netanyahu ordered the demolition of the homes of the two Palestinians, and the mayor of Ashkelon, a coastal city just north of Gaza, sparked an uproar by suspending the employment of some Arab workers in the city.

Netanyahu also criticized opponents of the law who nevertheless support the creation of a Palestinian state.

"I also don't understand those who call for two states for two peoples, but at the same time oppose anchoring that in law," he said.  "They are quick to recognize a Palestinian national home, but adamantly oppose a Jewish national home.”