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Israel Passes Controversial 'Nation-State' Law


The Israeli parliament has just passed a law that deals with the very identity of the country. It enshrines Israel's character as the nation-state for Jewish people. Critics say the law undermines another element of Israel's identity - its democracy. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It may seem odd that Israel passed this foundational law 70 years after the country was founded. Here's how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained it in parliament.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: This is our country, the state of the Jews, but in recent years, there are those who try to undermine this and to undermine the foundation of our existence and rights. And today, we have legislated into the foundation of the law - this is our state. This is our language. This is our anthem. This is our flag. Long live Israel.

ESTRIN: The nation-state law downgrades the status of Arabic as an official language, though 1.5 million of Israel's citizens are Arab. And it says the government will encourage the creation of Jewish towns and communities. The law has caused controversy with Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who make up about a fifth of the population.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

ESTRIN: Arab representatives in parliament tore up copies of the bill as it was passed, calling the law tantamount to apartheid laws. They were then removed from the parliament floor. Amir Fuchs is with the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank. He says the new law excludes the words equality and democracy. He compares the new law to Israel's declaration of independence written 70 years ago.

AMIR FUCHS: The declaration of independence says the fact that we are obligated to full equality to all our inhabitants, and also, there is a specific call for the Arabs to take part in the country. And this is the - exactly the opposite message.

ESTRIN: Israel is defined by law as a Jewish and democratic state. There's always been a debate over how to balance those two characteristics. Fuchs says, in the future, Supreme Court judges could use this law to justify infringements on equality in favor of Israel's Jewish character. The law also speaks about Jewish religious rights in Israel. Some American Jewish organizations have opposed the law, fearing an orthodox interpretation of religion could discriminate against women, LGBT people and non-Orthodox Jews, as well as Muslims and other minorities. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF YAMANZ'S "SHALOM AUDIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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