Early Thursday morning after what seemed like an all-night shouting match in Israel’s Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strolled out of the parliamentary chamber, thrilled at the passage of the nation-state bill he had championed.
Ahmad Tibi, a member of Knesset from the Joint Arab List party, yelled at the Israeli leader, “You passed a racist law, an apartheid law! Why are you so afraid of Arabic?” Tibi and virtually every other member of the opposition – Israeli and Arab – had lambasted the nation-state bill as, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, blatantly discriminatory.
The bill stripped Arabic of its status as an official language, relegating it to a language with “special status,” and failed to mention the values of equality, democracy or minority rights. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on Israel’s character as a home for the Jewish people.
According to Tibi, Netanyahu fired back: “How dare you talk that way about the only democracy in the Middle East!?”
“Democracy only for Jews,” Tibi snapped.
The new law, passed 62-55 with two abstentions, has little practical effect in terms of daily living.
Much of the law deals with the status of Israel’s symbols — it codifies the national anthem, describes the Israeli flag and sets the calendar as the Jewish calendar. All of the country’s citizens, Israelis and Arabs alike, knew all of this in advance.
Even Arabic, though downgraded to a language with “special status,” will not be removed from street signs or government forms, according to Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.
“The new law threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora and fuel the campaign to delegitimize Israel,” warned Fuchs. “It will fall to future leaders to rectify the damage and return Israel to the Zionist vision that for 70 years has guided Israel’s vitality, dynamism, and international reputation.”
Instead, the nation-state law serves as a rallying cry for each side’s political base. Right-wing parties with nationalist messages hailed it as a victory for Zionism. Left-wing parties with pluralist messages decried it as a defeat for democracy.
Opposition parties even mocked this possibility by suggesting an amendment that would add the language “The purpose of this Basic Law is to please the electorate on the right before elections” to the bill.