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Israel’s ‘Nation-State’ Law

Israel’s citizenship regime has from the country’s establishment in 1948 always been characterized by an ethnic orientation. As explained by Harpaz and Herzog:

Soon after its establishment in 1948, Israel adopted a citizenship regime that is premised on co-ethnic immigration. The cornerstone of this policy is the 1950 Law of Return, which stipulates that every Jew has the right to come to Israel and take up citizenship. The Law of Return is a symbolic expression of the most central tenet in Zionist ideology, the ‘return’ of all Jews to their ancient homeland in Palestine. At the same time, this law has been central in securing a Jewish majority in Israel. In contrast, Israel’s 1952 Citizenship Law, which is mostly used to regulate access to membership by non-Jewish minorities and immigrants, plays a relatively minor role in shaping the country’s identity and demography.

The authors continue to observe that ‘Israel’s borders, both physical and symbolic, are disputed through and through’ and that the ongoing discussions concerning the resolution of the situation in Israel/Palestine mean that ‘Israel, at 70, has not yet resolved fundamental questions regarding its borders and its citizenry’.

It is against this backdrop that the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People (the Nation-State or Nationality Law) was adopted by the Knesset on 19 July 2018, approximately two months after the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The law, which includes stripping Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew and downgrading it to a ‘special status’ that enables its continued use within Israeli institutions, has internationally been interpreted as a move to the right, with the European Union joining Israeli-Arab political leaders, Israeli opposition politicians and liberal Jewish groups in the US in flagging up concern about what according to some amounts to ‘apartheid’.

Over the last few months, the law has also met with criticism from the religious community. The Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, in a statement from 2 November 2018 inspired by a ‘spirit of dialogue’, has responded that the Nation State legislation is a blow to the values of equality, justice and democracy. Moreover, calling for the equal treatment of citizens,

[w]e must draw the attention of the authorities to a simple fact: our faithful, the Christians, our fellow citizens, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i, all of us who are Arabs, are no less citizens of this country than our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Author: Olivier Vonk

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