JERUSALEM -- Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a controversial law that defines the country as the nation state of the Jewish people -- rejecting claims by opponents that it discriminates against minorities.
In its ruling, the court acknowledged shortcomings in the so-called Nation State Law. But it said the law “did not negate Israel's democratic character” outlined in other laws.
Proponents of the 2018 law claimed the legislation merely enshrined Israel’s existing Jewish character. Critics said it further downgrades the status of Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up around 20% of the country’s population.
Israel’s Arab citizens have the right to vote and are well-represented in many professions, but nonetheless suffer from widespread discrimination in areas such as housing and the job market.
The law was approved by the Knesset, or parliament, in July 2018. It defines Israel as the “nation-state” of the Jewish people and adds that “fulfilling the right to national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” It also downgraded Arabic from an official state language to one with “special status.”
The law’s passage prompted vocal opposition from the country’s Arab minority, particularly among Druze Israelis, who serve in the military.
A number of Arab rights groups and civil society organizations appealed to the court to strike down the law. An 11-judge panel, the court’s largest configuration, considered the case.
In their 10-1 decision, the court said “equal rights are granted to all citizens of the state, including minority groups.” They said the right to national self-determination “does not deny recognized personal or cultural rights.” They also said the law did not detract from the status of the Arabic language or preclude “the promotion of its status.”
The court’s only Arab justice, George Karra, was the lone dissenter, calling the law discriminatory.
Justice Minister Gideon Saar, leader of the nationalist New Hope party, welcomed Thursday's ruling.
He said the law “anchors the essence and character of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people” and “does not infringe on the individual rights of any of the citizens of Israel.”
Adalah, an Arab rights group that tried to overturn the law, said the court upheld a law that “completely excludes those who do not belong to the majority group.” It said it would “continue to work internationally to expose the discriminatory and racist nature of this law.”
Legal expert Yuval Shany, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank, said the law is largely symbolic and provides a constitutional “background” for judges to consider when weighing other cases. But he said the ruling made clear that other laws, on issues like equality and minority rights, would also have to be taken into account.
“Essentially, the court, says you will have to explore these issues on a case by case basis when future legislation comes before us,” he said.