The interpretations of those outside the land and those living there don’t always overlap, however. Israel’s new law is a consequential signal of Israel’s values, especially when it comes to Arab-Israeli minority rights. But its passage doesn’t necessarily represent the right-wing victory that critics claim.
The nation-state bill was first introduced in 2011 by a center-right member of the Knesset, Avi Dichter. The core goal was to establish the unique Jewish right to an Israeli homeland as one of Israel’s basic laws—effectively, its foundational, constitutional rules. When the final version passed this week, Dichter declared that “we are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens,” according to Ynet, an Israeli news website.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it this way: “We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state—the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language, and flag.”
In its initial form, however, the bill didn’t win much support, and its provisions have been haggled over ever since. “Over the long and tortured seven-year history of this bill, it has essentially been emptied of almost all of the content that the right-wing folks who supported it at the beginning sought for it to contain,” said Noah Efron, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and former member of the Tel Aviv City Council. “If the right-wing government has worked for seven years on a bill that in its first forms had teeth, and in the end they pass a weakened bill that’s symbolic … is that a sign of strength or of weakness?”
And indeed, Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the Knesset’s right-wing Jewish Home party, wrote on Facebook after the bill passed that he felt conflicted about the final version. “It does not mention the name of God,” he complained, or “a settlement clause with real practical significance.” Efron, who has been monitoring the reaction to the bill in Israel, told me that ultra-Orthodox newspapers have been arguing that the law could end up being challenged in Israel’s largely liberal courts, which could ultimately undermine its provisions—or worse. The law establishes Shabbat as an official day of rest in Israel, and ultra-orthodox Jews worry that courts could end up reversing that or making it harder to protect Shabbat observance through laws that close public stores, for example. Smotrich echoed this as well in his written comments.
On some parts of the Israeli left, though, the reaction has been vastly different. “It fits so well with the narrative on the left that it’s almost not questioned: that Israel is sliding towards an abyss of non-democracy, of rising commitment to ethnocracy,” said Efron. “There are people who really felt as though: This is it. This is the day I’m marking on my calendar, the day when Israeli democracy ended.” For his part, Efron thinks “that’s crazy,” even though he identifies with the political left himself. He doesn’t think the bill matters nearly so much, especially because it has minimal practical effect.