Petitioners & Pitfalls: Israeli High Court Upholds Jewish Nation-State Law

On Thursday, the President of The Israeli High Court of Justice, Esther Hayut, ruled in favor of upholding the Jewish Nation-State Law that the nation passed in 2018. After hearing the 15 petitions against the law, the High Court ruling was 10-1. Many articles referred to the law as “contentious” but a quick survey of its clauses revealed a blueprint for division.

The Jewish Nation-State law, the newest addition to Israel’s Basic Laws, includes 11 clauses. Clauses 1, 3, 4, and 7 were scrutinized in the petitions.

  • Clause 1: Jewish-Israelis have “a unique” “right to exercise national self-determination”.
  • Clause 3: Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
  • Clause 4: Hebrew is the official language of Israel and Arabic, which previously shared that status for 70 years, now has “special status”.
  • Clause 7: Jewish settlement is a national value that will be actively prioritized.

The law’s pronounced erasure of the non-Jewish communities in Israel was taken to task in the petitions and by one member of the Israeli High Court. Justice George Karras, the lone Arab member on the High Court, opposed the law, emphasizing the obvious: the law overlooks the status of the Arab and Druze communities of Israel. Karras’ criticism did not draw any support despite the known national loyalty of the Druze community. Many of them voluntarily enlist in the Israeli Defence Force despite being legally exempt from it.

Israeli Druze Members of the Knesset (MKs) were among the first to petition the High Court against the Jewish Nation-State Law just months after it was passed in 2018. This group included MKs from across the political spectrum. One MK, Salah Sa’ad, of the Labour Party, reminded the nation that, “for the Druze public, which gives of its blood and its sons for the State of Israel, the nation-state law is spitting in our face.” This week’s petition rejections have sparked further resentment in the community.

The petitioners also included The Adalah Legal Center for Arab and Minority Rights in Israel, an NGO that has been active in its criticism of the law since its passing three years ago. An Attorney, Myssana Morany, represented Adalah at the UN a year after the bill was passed. She called for the UN to condemn the Jewish Nation-State Law citing that “there is no democratic state in the world that defines its constitutional identity on exclusive racial grounds, and as serving one ethnic group”.

In their current petition, Adalah called the law “illegitimate” and claimed that it “enshrines Jewish supremacy and racial segregation as foundational principles of the State of Israel.”

The Joint List, an alliance of the Arab-majority political parties in Israel, also petitioned against the law. This petition came after a failed attempt to repeal the law last year. Ahmed Tibi, a Joint List Member of the Knesset (MK), expressed his disappointment, saying that “the High Court failed once again to prevent the harm caused by the inequality of Israel’s ethno-democratic regime.”

Despite Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s claim that the Jewish Nation-State law does not harm the individual rights of Israeli citizens, the law has already been used to validate discrimination. Clause 7 of the Jewish Nation-State Law makes it quite clear: the harm starts with the Israeli education system.

In 2020, two Palestinian schoolchildren were denied transport to a school in the Israeli city of Karmiel on the basis of clause 7. The prioritizing and validation of building and maintaining strictly Jewish settlements allowed Karmiel to bar access to these Palestinian children on the basis that it would “undermine” the town’s “Jewish character”. This action was justified despite its disregard of the nation’s Education Law, which legislates that municipalities must pay for transport for their students to get to school safely. The action was strange considering the small population of Palestinians already living in Karmiel.

In 2019, the Education Minister of Israel, Rafi Peretz, made it mandatory for students to learn about the Jewish Nation-State Law as part of the civics studies curriculum and matriculation exams. The teaching of the law was criticized for being “humiliating”, blatant propaganda, and a tool for erasing non-Jewish identities, like the over 550,000 Palestinian students enrolled in Israeli secondary schools that must deal with these horrific reminders of the ongoing Nakba.

In 2019, The United Right, a coalition of Israel’s Right-Wing political parties, showcased what clause 7 could look like in action. The group’s leader, former Justice Minister, Ayelet Shakhed, set her sights on making the annexation of the occupied West Bank an official policy. Under the Jewish Nation-State Law, she was justified. In response to the High Court’s ruling this Thursday, she was “disturbed that the law was even being contested”.

The ruling proves Ayelet is not alone in her deluded sense of Jewish “democracy” and this doesn’t end with her generation. The United Right has replenishable support as a new generation of right-wingers enters the voting booths. Many of these young voters believe that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “a weak centrist”. Clearly, their education in Jewish supremacy has brought about a deeper hunger for violence and power.

Clauses 3 and 4, like clause 7, did not come as a surprise to many Arab minorities living in Israel. For instance, Samah Salaime, a woman who entered Israel as a refugee, expressed that she already felt like a second-class citizen “but now it’s official”. Although the Jewish state granted her economic rights, she had “no language and no nation, or even culture”. So while the High Court of Justice and The United Right are attempting to “build a framework for an Israeli constitution” with The Jewish Nation-State Law, the nation’s non-Jewish population is descending further into cultural precarity.

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