Israel has approved a controversial law that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people – leading to accusations that it discriminates against Arabs.
The Jewish Nation-State Bill, passed just after the state marked the 70th anniversary of its birth, was hailed as a “defining moment in the annals of Zionism” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But critics, including many Arabs, however, said it was racist and discriminatory, planting the seeds of an “apartheid state”.
The law, backed by the right-wing government, was passed with a 62-55 vote and two abstentions in the 120-member parliament, after months of political argument.
Some Arab MPs shouted and ripped up papers after the vote.
The bill enshrines Hebrew as the only official language of the state, stripping Arabic of that status, and names Jewish settlement as a priority.
Mr Netanyahu said the bill was about defending the Jewish character of the state, which was established in 1948 as a homeland for the Jewish people, “for generations to come”.
“We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel’s democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides,” he said.
About 20% of Israel’s population of nine million are Arab, with an additional 2.8m Palestinians living in the Israel-occupied West Bank and about 1.7m in the Gaza strip.
Arabs living in Israel – descendants of those who stayed after many were expelled from historic Palestine in 1948 – have equal legal rights, but they say they are discriminated against in areas such as work, housing and education.
Recent high-profile cases of Arab bedouin villages being demolished to make way for Jewish majority towns, and warnings by the government of a demographic threat have drawn attention to Arab complaints.
Adalah, a legal centre for Arabs living in Israel, called the law “illegitimate” and “colonial”.
It said it “seeks to maintain a regime in which one ethnic-national group controls an indigenous-national group living in the same territory while advancing ethnic superiority by promoting racist policies”.
Months of debate preceded the law’s approval, with previous versions of the bill including sections that instructed courts to rule according to Jewish law when there was no legal precedent and which explicitly allowed establishment of Jewish-only communities.
That was replaced by a vaguer clause which said it would “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement, after Israeli President Reuven Rivlin voiced fears it would lead to “discrimination and exclusion”.
Mr Rivlin was one of many Jewish Israelis who objected to the law, and thousands protested the proposed legislation under the banner “this is home for all of us” in Tel Aviv last week.