In a pivotal moment for Israel’s democracy, the country’s top court is currently considering a “severely controversial” law that could limit its power. If the court approves the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, it could undermine decades of progress towards pluralist values in the state. This comes as the Knesset, the country’s legislature, adopts a series of measures that marginalize the country’s Arab citizens.
To provide background information, Israel is an officially Jewish and democratic state. Its Declaration of Independence is unique in promising “complete equality of social and political rights” for all its citizens “irrespective of religion, race, or sex”. Yet, consistent with its Jewish identity, it has also long been a state bestowing “special privileges in immigration and religion” to Jews to the detriment of other ethnic groups.
The Basic Law in question was passed in a narrow Knesset (22-14 vote) in July 2018 in response to a 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court that granted citizenship to an Arab couple. It was framed as a means to restore the traditional balance between the court and legislative bodies. It effectively establishes Israel as an exclusively Jewish state with special rights for its Jewish minority. Crucially, it downgrades the status of Arabic as an official language, taking away some of the benefits earned through decades of struggle by the Palestinian citizens of Israel. It also allows for Jewish-only town and city authorities, which will particularly limit the rights of non-Jewish minorities.
As the case currently unfolds before the Supreme Court, human rights advocates have expressed their concern. They argue that adopting the Basic Law would severely limit the court’s ability to act as a check on governmental abuse of powers, and that it could potentially deprive citizens of their legally mandated rights. Civil rights groups have already challenged the law in court, with some resulting in partial victories, such as the reclassification of Arabic as an official language.
If the Supreme Court chooses to approve the Basic Law, it will represent a major setback for Israel’s democracy. The court’s review of the Basic Law will prove to be a litmus test for the future of democracy in the country. In a time where Israel is facing many internal and external challenges, it is more important than ever to protect the fundamental values of a democratic society. Although there are disagreements and debates, the fundamental truth is that democracy requires equality in rights and outcome for all citizens. Only then can this unique country overcome its struggles and protect its hard-fought democracy.