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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Explained: Why Israel’s controversial nation state law is being challenged in Supreme Court

Israel is scheduled to hold its fourth elections in two years after the country’s two main parties in its unity government failed to meet a deadline in a dispute over government budgets.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 24, 2020 4:09:37 pm
Informally known as the ‘nation state law’, the ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’ is one of the 14 Basic Laws or constitutional laws of the State of Israel. (Reuters/File)

Approximately two years after Israel passed its controversial nation state law, the country’s Supreme Court assembled on Tuesday this week for a special session to hear a petition by Arab-Israeli citizens and rights groups asking for the scrapping of this law. The petition asks for a declaration that articles in this law are unconstitutional, specifically those pertaining to Israel’s official language and land allocation laws, which petitioners claim are discriminatory towards non-Jewish citizens.

It has been a tumultuous year for Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and for the leader himself. Israel is scheduled to hold its fourth elections in two years after the country’s two main parties in its unity government failed to meet a deadline in a dispute over government budgets.

In the midst of this, Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has been aiming for a sixth term in the country’s highest office, while simultaneously facing mass protests this year from citizens calling for his resignation. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the leader’s problems, with protesters also accusing him of mishandling the outbreak.

What is the nation state law?

Informally known as the ‘nation state law’, the ‘Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People’ is one of the 14 Basic Laws or constitutional laws of the State of Israel. The law allows Israel to identify itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and promotes Jewish people’s right to self-determination. When enacted in 2018, it downgraded Arabic from the status of an official language to one that had special status.

Among other clauses, it also allows the development of Jewish settlements. One of the first clauses in this law says, “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination” and that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

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Which groups are impacted by this law?

The law is symbolic and declarative, but critics argue that it particularly discriminates against the Arab minority in the country and excludes other communities that call the country home.

As of 2019, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 74.2 per cent of the population declared itself Jewish, while 17.8 per cent declared itself Muslim, 2 per cent Christian and 1.6 per cent Druze. The remaining 4.4 per cent include faiths such as Baháʼí etc. and those who do not belong to any of Israel’s recognised faiths.

One of the main petitioners regarding this bill, Akram Hasson, an Israeli Druze politician who served as a member of Israel’s Knesset from 2012-2019, has been a vocal critic of this law. In 2018, when the law had first been enacted, Hasson had said that the law was “extreme” and discriminated against minorities in Israel. This week, local news publication The Media Line quoted Hasson saying: “I want the court to change the articles that injure the Druze community and all minorities in Israel.”

The Druze can be found in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and are an Arabic-speaking community. They do not identify as Muslims and have their own distinct religious practises. “We have no other country or alternative land, we’ve lived here since before the state was established, we have a blood and life bond with the Jewish people,” Hasson had said. “We serve in the army and dedicate our lives to protect Israel. This law categorizes me as a second-rate citizen, despite me being loyal and loving of Israel, and respectful of its values and symbols.”

What has Israel’s Supreme Court said?

The petition is still being heard, but during Tuesday’s session, the court questioned whether the law indeed violated basic laws like liberty and human dignity, The Media Line reported.

The court said that while the law “may not contain language some of us had hoped for,” and that “it would have been preferable if the term ‘equality’ would have found its way into it,” striking down a basic law passed by parliament was an “unprecedented and extreme measure,” according to the news report.

None of Israel’s Basic Laws have been invalidated by the country’s courts and legal experts believe that in this case, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would intervene. Any changes to this law would involve consideration whether these laws actually violate principles of democracy and liberty in the country.

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