The Slatest

Israel Declares Itself a Principally Jewish State With Passage of Controversial Law

Members of the Israeli parliament sit in the Knesset.
Members of the Israeli parliament attend the Knesset Plenary Hall session on July 18, ahead of the vote on the nation-state law.
Marc Israel Sellem/AFP/Getty Images

After hours of heated debate, Israel’s legislature passed a controversial law Thursday that declares the country a principally Jewish state, further inflaming tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The legislation, commonly known as the nation-state law, has been hailed by its supporters as the fulfillment of Zionism’s fundamental goals. Opponents criticize the law as racist and anti-democratic.

The law is a largely symbolic measure, but it is bound to further fracture the relationship between Israel’s Jewish majority and its non-Jewish Arab minority, which constitutes 21 percent of the country’s population. Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence explicitly enshrined equal social and political rights to all residents, but many non-Jewish Israeli citizens—especially Arab people—insist that they are treated as second-class citizens.

The nation-state law has been a cornerstone of the ruling far-right, religious coalition government helmed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party. Its proponents see the legislation as an affirmation of the foundational tenets of Israel’s national identity.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed the bill 62–55, with two members abstaining and one member absent. The nation-state law is now part of Israel’s basic laws, which are a special set of constitutional laws that supersede the nation’s Declaration of Independence. A basic law has never been overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court, and such laws can be amended only by a supermajority in the Knesset.

The nation-state law declares that the “right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

Another clause states that the development of Jewish settlements is a “national value” and proclaims that the government will “encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” It is unclear whether the law’s language refers here to the continued annexation of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem through Jewish settlements, which constitute a “flagrant violation of international law,” according to the U.N.

Other contentious provisions in the law downgrade Arabic’s status from an official language to a language “with a special status” and declare Jerusalem, “complete and united,” as Israel’s capital. The status of Jerusalem is one of the most hotly contested issues in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with both Jews and Palestinians claiming the holy city as their national capital.

“This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the vote. “We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence.”

Arab members of the Knesset responded to the law’s passage by ripping copies of the bill and crying out, “Apartheid!” Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, an alliance of predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset, waved a black flag in protest. Arab Knesset members were thrown out of the chamber for their protest, according to a correspondent from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The law’s passage comes during a moment of mounting turbulence in Israel, fueled in part by the intensifying Israeli military siege of Gaza, by President Trump’s controversial move of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and by the government’s pending demolition of all buildings in the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar and displacement of its residents.

The nation-state law exposes a deep rift within Israel’s self-proclaimed identity as both Jewish and democratic (a status that is inherently imperiled by demographic realities, as non-Jews in Israel and the Palestinian territories approach population parity with Israel’s Jews). The law explicitly entrenches a hierarchy among Israel’s citizens based on their identities, making the prospect of lasting peace in the region seem even more hopeless.