LONDON -- Israel adopted a contentious law on Thursday that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a move critics described as racist and a step toward an apartheid state.
The bill, which is backed by the right-wing government, states that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people” and that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It also downgrades the Arabic language from an official language to one with “special status” and encourages the establishment of Jewish settlements. “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment,” one clause of the law reads.
After the bill was passed, some Arab members of parliament yelled “apartheid” as they tore up paper versions of the law.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the new law marked a “pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the state of Israel.”
“Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens,” he told the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, after the vote. “This is our state — the Jewish state.”
The law passed by a vote of 62-55 with two abstentions in the 120-member parliament after hours of heated debate and months of political dispute.
The law is largely symbolic, but opponents say it harms the Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of Israel’s population of about 9 million people. Some Arab lawmakers called the bill racist.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said the law has “apartheid characteristics.”
“This 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,” the group said in a statement.