Summer recess

In the last week before the Knesset went into its summer recess on Friday, it managed to pass a slew of legislation, some of which is regrettable and harmful to the country’s democracy.

Early Thursday, after months of wrangling, it finally passed the jewel in the crown of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – the controversial “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” – by a vote of 62-55, with two abstentions.

Be the first to know –

Presented by MK Avi Dichter (Likud), the legislation states that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people, and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it.” It also downgrades Arabic as an official language to having “a special status” after Hebrew, which is called “the language of the state.”

Turning to Arab MKs before the vote, Dichter said, arrogantly, “We [the Jews] were here before you, and we will be here after you,” but assured them that their rights as minorities would be protected. A triumphant Netanyahu declared after the vote, “This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the State of Israel.” On the other side of the aisle, MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) decried the law as representing no less than “the death of our democracy.”

The truth, as is often the case, rests somewhere in the middle. After 70 years, it is a historically significant development to anchor Israel’s identity in law as “the national home of the Jewish people.” Democracy here is not dead, but those who say the legislation discriminates against Arab and other minorities are understandably upset.

We tend to agree with maverick Likud MK Benny Begin, who before voting against the law said it should have stated clearly that Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, is committed to safeguarding the rights of its minorities. “There cannot be a conflict between nation-state, nationalism and equal rights,” Begin said.

On Wednesday, the Knesset also passed the so-called “Surrogacy Law,” which expands state-supported surrogacy eligibility to single women but excludes single men and male homosexual couples. The law, which passed 59-52, has understandably sparked an outcry in the LGBT community, which is threatening to hold strikes in major cities across the country on Sunday.

To make matters worse, Netanyahu backtracked on his promise to support fellow Likud MK Amir Ohana’s amendment to grant single men access to surrogacy. Former prime minister Ehud Barak was right to slam Netanyahu for first stating that he is in favor of surrogacy for gay fathers and then voting against it.

A sane voice came from Tyler Gregory, executive director of the New York-based A Wider Bridge, which promotes ties between Israel and its LGBT community. “We may have lost [the vote], but the struggle to build a stronger, more inclusive Israel is far from over,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Knesset approved a law 56-48 that limits Palestinian access to the High Court of Justice and expands the jurisdiction of Israeli law to Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) hailed the legislation, saying that “50 years after the liberation of Judea and Samaria,” Jewish residents there are now “indistinguishable from other Israeli citizens.” But politicians on the Left, such as MK Yael German, warned correctly that this might be another stepping stone on the road to the annexation of Judea and Samaria.

On Monday, the Knesset approved legislation dubbed the “Breaking the Silence Law,” which bans “external elements that act against the Israeli military and the educational system” from entering schools. The vote on the law, initiated by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi), was 43-24. In response, Breaking the Silence – an Israeli NGO that gathers accounts by former IDF soldiers of alleged human rights violations against Palestinians – accused Bennett of being so afraid of it that he passed “a law to silence the occupation.” While we don’t have to agree with the activities whistle-blowing groups such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem, their existence does not undermine but rather strengthens democracy.

In light of these lamentable laws, we can only seek to be fair and laud our lawmakers for passing at least one good piece of legislation this week. Following a public outcry, the Knesset on Tuesday in a vote of 77-16 retracted legislation it approved in May that allows the prime minister and defense minister to declare war without approval from the security cabinet. At least if Israel decides to declare war on Hamas in Gaza, we will know that it has the support of the majority of the 10-member security cabinet – and not just the two men at the top. Now that sounds a little more like the bastion of democracy Israel proudly presents to the world.