Israel’s parliament on Thursday adopted a law defining the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, provoking fears it will lead to blatant discrimination against its Palestinian citizens.
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.
It stipulates that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it”. It also states that an undivided Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
“This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset after the vote.
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,” Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List – an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties – said in a statement following the law’s passage.
Ahmed Tibi, one of the legislators, said: “I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy.”
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Jerusalem, said the bill entrenches into Israeli law what has already long been an active policy of segregation and discrimination by Israeli authorities.
“It’s symbolic but it is actively putting it into law … in Israel’s constitution, highlighting that this is the way forward for this country. The message is not an inclusive or democratic one.”
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, called the law a bid to advance “ethnic superiority by promoting racist policies”.
“The Jewish nation-state law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law,” said Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah.
“By defining sovereignty and democratic self-rule as belonging solely to the Jewish people – wherever they live around the world – Israel has made discrimination a constitutional value and has professed its commitment to favouring Jewish supremacy as the bedrock of institutions.”
According to Adalah, there are currently over 65 Israeli laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens in Israel and Palestinian residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) on the basis of their national belonging.
The Jewish nation-state law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law
In Ma’alot-Tarshiha, a municipality in northern Israel which was created by linking the Jewish town of Ma’alot and the Palestinian town of Tarshiha, there was anger among Palestinian residents.
“I think this is racist legislation by a radical right-wing government that is creating radical laws and is planting the seeds to create an apartheid state,” said physician Bassam Bisharah, 71.
“The purpose of this law is discrimination. They want to get rid of the Arabs totally,” said Yousef Faraj, 53, from the nearby Druze village of Yanuh.
“The Israelis want to destroy all the religions of the Arabs.”
Palestinian citizens of Israel number some 1.8 million, about 20 percent of the nine million population.
Early drafts of the legislation went further in what critics at home and abroad saw as discrimination towards Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have long said they are treated as second-class citizens.
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.
Instead, a more vaguely-worded version was approved, which says: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.”
Even after the changes, critics said the new law will deepen a sense of alienation within the Palestinian Arab minority.
Benny Begin, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the founder of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, abstained from voting, warning of the party’s growing disconnect from human rights.
“This is not a decision I expected from the Likud leadership,” he said.
The American Jewish Committee, a group representing the Jewish diaspora, said it was “deeply disappointed,” saying the law “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic”.
Netanyahu has defended the law. “We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel’s democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides,” he said last week.
“An absolute majority wants to ensure our state’s Jewish character for generations to come.”
Israel’s Palestinian population comprises mainly the descendants of those who remained on their land since 1948, the time of the establishment of the modern state of Israel.
The fledgeling state consolidated its control over Palestinian lands on the back of an ethnic cleansing campaign where hundreds of thousands were forced to leave their homes.
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.