What Does Israel's New Controversial 'Jewish Nation-state Law' Mean?
Israel's flag (Photo: newsfeel.com)

Israel's parliament has passed a controversial law characterising the country as principally a Jewish state. The "nation state" law says Jews have a unique right to national self-determination there and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language.

The legislation, adopted by 62 votes to 55, makes Hebrew the country's national language and defines the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest. The bill also strips Arabic of its designation as an official language, downgrading it to a "special status" that enables its continued use within Israeli institutions.

The law speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a "unique" right to self-determination there, according to copies of the final text quoted by Israeli media.

"It is our state, the Jewish state, but in recent years some have tried to question that as well as the principles of our existence and our rights," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the vote on the legislation, backed by his right-wing government. He called its approval a "decisive moment" in Israeli history.

The sponsor of the law, Avi Dichter from Netanyahu's Likud party, has said it aims to defend Israel's "status as a Jewish and democratic state." But others pointed out that references to "Jewish and democratic" in earlier versions of the law had been removed and that the law lacked references to equality as specified in the country's 1948 declaration of independence.

Shuki Friedman of the respected Israel Democracy Institute think tank said much of the law is symbolic, but it would force the courts to consider the country's Jewish nature and lead to a more "narrow interpretation of Arabs' rights".

A range of opposition politicians denounced the vote. The head of the mainly Arab Joint List alliance Ayman Odeh called it "the death of our democracy".

Arab parliament members who called the legislation "racist" ripped up copies of the bill in the chamber of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, after it was passed. "This is a law that encourages not only discrimination, but racism as well," lawmaker Yousef Jabareen said.

Palestinian members of the Knesset have condemned the bill. "It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens," Odeh, said in a statement following the law's passage.

The AFP notes that Reuven "Ruvi" Rivlin, the President of Israel whose role is mainly symbolic, had made a rare intervention in politics earlier this month to raise alarm over the clause. The legislation passed after the changing of a clause that would have allowed the state to "authorise a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community".