Israel Passes 'Nation-State' Law Prompting Accusations of Racism and Apartheid

Israeli lawmakers have passed a controversial "nation-state" bill declaring that only Jews have the right to self-determination in the country, prompting outcry from Israel's Arab minority and critics inside Israel and beyond.

The new law also downgraded Arabic from an official language to one of "special status," declared Jerusalem to be Israel's "united" capital and enshrined the country as the "historic homeland of the Jewish people," Reuters reported.

The bill, which grants Israeli Jews "an exclusive right to national self-determination" in the country, has been branded racist by its opponents, who say it is evidence that Israel has become an apartheid state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahead of the vote on the “nation-state” law, in Jerusalem, on July 18. Israel’s parliament adopted a law defining the country as the “nation-state” of the Jewish people, provoking fears it could lead to blatant discrimination against Arab citizens. MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/AFP/Getty Images

Parliament passed the law by 62 votes in favor to 55 against with two abstentions after hours of debate. Its passage comes just after the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel and coincided with weeks of deadly protests by Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip.

Though largely symbolic, it has been considered an attack on the country's 1.8 million Arabs, who make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population. Around 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes upon the creation of Israel, in 1948, and those who remained are now an ethnic minority. Though these Israeli Arabs have full equality under the law, activists say they are second-class citizens, facing discrimination in employment, education, healthcare and housing.

The bill—first drafted back in 2011—was watered down at the last minute to remove some of the most contentious elements under pressure from President Reuven Rivlin and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The Times of Israel said the bill is a "basic law," meaning it enjoys constitutional status, can shape case law and is more difficult to repeal than regular legislation.

The original would have legally codified the establishment of Jewish-only communities and order courts to fall back on Jewish ritual law when there were no relevant legal precedents. The bill still explicitly supports "the development of Jewish settlement," which it describes as "a national value" that the government will "encourage and promote."

Israeli members of parliament attend the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahead of the vote on the controversial “nation-state” law, in Jerusalem, on July 18. Though largely symbolic, the bill has been considered an attack on the country’s 1.8 million Arabs, who make up around 20 percent of the Israeli population. MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/AFP/Getty Images

Arab politician Ahmed Tibi said the law represented the "death of democracy," which he met with "shock and sorrow." But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—leader of the right-wing Likud party—said the bill would "ensure our state's Jewish character for generations to come." He said the government would still protect minority rights, but warned, "The majority also has rights and the majority decides."

A statement released by the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel said the law "guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism, and systemic inequality."

Adalah General Director Hassan Jabareen said the bill features "key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law."

"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 favoring Jewish supremacy as the bedrock of its institutions," Jabareen said.

The Israel Democracy Institute, a progressive-leaning think tank, posted a mock-up image of Israel's Declaration of Independence on its Facebook page, highlighting the parts that it claims the new law effectively obliterates. These included the state's commitment to development "for the benefit of all its inhabitants," its requirement to ensure "complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," and its adherence to "the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."