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Israel Is Divided Over a Bill to Establish Jewish-Only Communities

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaving the White House in March, following a meeting with the president. (Susan Walsh / AP)

The Israeli parliament is considering a bill that would legalize Jewish-only communities and codify the existing de facto segregation of the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities. It’s a move that, as The Guardian reports, has earned comparisons to South African apartheid.

The Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been arguing over what’s been dubbed the “nation-state bill” for the past five years. As Haaretz points out, “Israel has always understood itself to be a Jewish state,” but “politicians – specifically those on the right – have been pushing for legislation that would make that fact irrefutable.”

The delay is partly due to Israel’s coalition-style government. Although the current governing coalition is fairly conservative, its political parties take differing positions on the bill.

The parties have argued over several issues—whether Arabic can be a national language, whether Jewish-only communities would be ruled by Jewish law, and, now, a new clause, Section 7B, that says, “The state sees developing Jewish communities as a national value and will act to encourage, promote and establish them.”

Originally, Haaretz writes, Section 7B “stated that the state would allow groups to establish separate communities, ‘on the basis of religion and nationality,’ thus enabling the establishment of Jews-only communities.”

Now the bill allows the government to “authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community,” according to its latest text.

Opponents of the bill say that development would happen at the expense of Palestinians and other non-Jewish residents, because, as The Guardian reports, within these proposed communities, the law “would also permit Jewish religious law to be implemented in certain cases and remove Arabic as an official language.”

Tamar Zandberg, a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, said, “The basic law that advanced today is not a basic law on nationality but a basic law of racism. This is a law that was born in sin and advanced through arm-twisting among the extremist and nationalist elements in the coalition.” Haaretz reports that another Knesset member, Dov Khenin, has called the bill “a model of undisguised racism, suited only to corrupt rulers who have lost all shame.”

The bill’s staunchest defenders include Netanyahu and members of his Likud Party. When Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, said that the bill would harm Israel’s international reputation, and “even be used as a weapon by our enemies,” Likud member Miki Zohar responded, “Unfortunately, President Rivlin has lost it,” and suggested the president had “forgotten his DNA.”

Netanyahu himself, The Guardian writes, “has lashed out at domestic and international critics, ordering the foreign ministry to reprimand the EU envoy Emanuele Giaufret after he was reported as saying the bill was discriminatory.”

In a speech last week, Netanyahu defended the bill: “In the Israeli democracy, we will continue to protect the rights of both the individual and the group, this is guaranteed. But the majority have rights too, and the majority rules.”

Parliament is scheduled to vote on the bill next week.

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