The Knesset has advanced a bill that could redefine Israel as the "national home of the Jewish people." Critics say that discriminates against the country's Arab minority.
With a 48-41 vote in the 120-seat Knesset Wednesday, lawmakers gave initial approval to a bill to redefine Israel as "the national home of the Jewish people." Authors called the bill, which would enshrine Hebrew as Israel's official language, "especially crucial in times like these, when there are those who seek to undermine the Jewish people's right to a national home in their land."
Avi Dichter, the sponsor and a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, said Israel "is a state for all of its citizens as individuals, but it is not a nation-state of the minorities who live in it."
The Knesset's justice committee will evaluate the bill and return it to the parliament for three more rounds of voting before it can become law.
'Racist and nationalistic'
Activists have raised concerns that the bill would lead to further discrimination. Many in Israel view Netanyahu's government, which supports the bill, as the most right-wing in the country's history, and Arab Israelis, generally the descendants of Palestinians who remained within newly drawn borders when the state arose in 1948, allege widespread discrimination. Not counting the more than 4.4 million people who live in the Palestinian territories, Arabs make up 17.5 percent of Israel's population, and road signs and government services are often bilingual.
"No apartheid law, as racist and nationalistic as it may be, will erase the fact that two peoples live here," Ayman Odeh, a member of parliament who heads the opposition Joint List alliance, said on Wednesday. "The extreme right-wing government is trying to spark a fire of nationalistic hatred, but I still believe that there lives a majority here who want to live in peace, equality and democracy," he added.
Ahead of Wednesday's vote, Dichter, who has introduced similar legislation twice in the past six years, attempted to dispel accusations of discrimination. Although Hebrew would become the national language, he said, Arabic would have a "special status."
Nevertheless, Jamal Zahalka, of the left-wing Balad party, was removed from the Knesset on Wednesday afternoon after tearing up a copy of the bill and calling Dichter a "fascist" and a "racist." And Zehava Gal-On, the leader of the pacifist Meretz party, said the legislation was "a declaration of war against the Arab citizens of the country and contrary to Israel as a society governed in a democratic manner."
mkg/rc (AFP, EFE)