Presidents Past and Present Attack Jewish State Law

November 27, 2014  

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday came under attack from two presidents – the former and the current – over the controversial Jewish State Law.

Former President Shimon Peres and current President Reuven Rivlin both used their speeches at the state memorial for Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, to warn against the law.

“The Jewish State Law is an attempt to subjugate the Declaration of Independence for passing political purposes, and may shock the nation and dismantle Israel’s democratic status at home and abroad,” Peres said during his speech.

“Ben Gurion’s voice demands that we be what Israel was meant to be: a model state, sane and enlightened, which seeks justice, equality and peace,” he continued. “The controversy over the so-called ‘Jewish State Law’ is seen by many as unnecessary and as possibly harming the values that unite the people.”

President Reuven Rivlin, who criticized the bill earlier this week, repeated his criticism in his speech at the same memorial.

“These days, in which it seems as though political considerations are mixed in with national discretion, we must ask ourselves hard questions,” said Rivlin. “I want to believe that the Israeli public and its leaders did not give up and will not give up on the values, the language and vision that bind us together.”

Netanyahu, for his part, once again defended the bill in his own speech the memorial, saying, “Ben Gurion was clear about one thing: the State of Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and only the Jewish people can fulfill its national aspirations in it. I do not pretend to know what Ben Gurion would have said today, but when he declared the State of Israel, there was not a need to enact a law that will define the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel. But over the years there are those who have challenged this character, and therefore it should be established in the Jewish State Law.”

The bill passed a crucial cabinet vote on Sunday, which cleared the way for it to be put to a vote in the Knesset, and stipulates, “The state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people in which it realizes its aspiration for self determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage…the right to realization of national self determination in Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people.”

Netanyahu has said he will amend the bill to make it more “moderate,” equalizing Israel’s Jewish and democratic status as opposed to the current version that highlights the Jewish nature of the state, even as it defines Israel as a democracy respecting the rights of all citizens.

The original bill would have Arabic moved from being an official language of the state to having “special status” instead, although Netanyahu would keep Arabic as an official language, leading many to warn the new version will be watered down enough not to have many practical effects.

A Knesset vote on the bill has been postponed due to vehement opposition to it among coalition members, mostly by Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has been a vocal opponent of the proposed law.

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