The Knesset, Israel's legislature, provoked immediate outrage early Thursday when it passed a controversial law that critics within and beyond Israel have denounced as "an apartheid bill." It proclaims "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."
Following the 62-55 vote—with two abstentions—Arab lawmakers reportedly 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."
"Israel is now openly and unblushingly a racist, apartheid state," responded human rights activist Craig Murray, a former British diplomat.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace, weighed in on Twitter:
Congrats Israel, you played yourself. Enshrining apartheid into law for all the world to see https://t.co/jqwANLgGKh— Rebecca Vilkomerson (@RVilkomerson) July 19, 2018
"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, by yelling at him, "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 claimed Thursday. "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—primarily descendants of Palestinians who stayed on their land during and after the war of 1948—live in Israel, making up about 20 percent of the country's population.
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"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."
The law details Israel's national symbols, designates Hebrew as the state's official language—downgrading Arabic to "special status"—and claims the "unified and complete" city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The city, which is home to some of the holiest sites in both Judaism and Islam, is a key element of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and most countries do not recognize it as Israel's capital.
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."
The American Jewish activist group IfNotNow tweeted:
What a disaster. Literally the only good thing that can be said about this discriminatory law is that they took out the part that explicitly legalized segregation...https://t.co/6CkKxq41Wn— IfNotNow (@IfNotNowOrg) July 19, 2018
Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah concluded that the law "serves to clarify for any who were confused the apartheid and racist nature of the occupying entity."