Analysis: Israel’s Nation-State Law

Aug 2, 2018 | CIJA Publications, Israeli Politics


This month, Israel’s parliament passed a law titled “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” with 62 votes in favour, 55 against, and two abstentions.

The law has generated significant debate both within Israel and the Diaspora, including the Canadian Jewish community. The text of the bill has substantially evolved since its introduction in 2011, resulting in widespread misunderstandings regarding the new law and its place within the broader context of Israeli democracy.

It is important to note that neither in Israel nor the Diaspora is there any disagreement that Israel serves as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Rather, the debate is over whether this should be enshrined in a basic law, what such a law should include, and how it interacts with Israel’s democratic values and institutions.

In this vital conversation, there have been legitimate points raised from both supportive and opposing perspectives. To help navigate what can be a very confusing issue, CIJA has prepared the following analysis, which provides background information as well as a breakdown of the final text of the law.

To gain a contextualized understanding of the new law, please read the Frequently Asked Questions section below. For a more in-depth analysis, read on for a clause-by-clause examination.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of the Nation-State law?

The law touches on Israel’s core identity ­– the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people – as well as Jewish peoplehood more broadly.

A nation-state is the expression of the sovereignty of a people. This concept is recognized as a core principle of International law as the right of a people to self-determination. Many Western liberal democracies define themselves as nation-states in their constitution. For example, Spain’s constitutions states that “National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people.”

Israel does not have a constitution, but a series of basic laws that have been introduced one-by-one over time. These quasi-constitutional laws helps guide the Judicial branch of government integrate Israel’s Jewish and democratic characteristics when making legal decisions. Of the eleven other Basic Laws currently in force, none focus on Israel’s character as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The Nation-State law aims to enshrine into law the “Jewish” part of “Jewish and Democratic.”

What on-the-ground impact will the Nation-State law have?

Almost all the articles in the Nation-State law – including the sections about Israel’s national holidays, the Sabbath, the status of Jerusalem as Israel’s united capital, and the Law of Return – were already established in previous legislation, some dating back to Israel’s early years. The Nation-State law enshrines these items and makes it harder for future governments to amend.

Other controversial provisions that would have allowed for the establishment of “exclusive”
communities (i.e.: allowing residents to restrict residency solely to those of a similar
identity) have been removed. Similarly, the new legislation does not mandate the courts to refer to Jewish religious tradition in adjudicating legally ambiguous matters.

Why was the Nation-State law passed now?

When introducing the law, MK Avi Dicther said “the law will fortify Israel’s status and its values as Jewish and democratic against all those who try to undermine it,” in response to calls from some NGOs, Palestinian leaders, and some Arab-Israeli Members of Knesset to annul Israel’s definition as a national home for the Jewish people.

Supporters of the law argue that the Nation-State law will provide Israel’s legal system with the tools to strike the proper balance between Israel’s Jewish and Democratic identities. They also reference several resolutions passed by international bodies like the United Nations Security Council and UNESCO that denied the historical connection between the land of Israel and the Jewish people.

Others have criticized Israeli lawmakers for limiting an important clause about Israel Diaspora relations to “work in the Diaspora”, but not Israel. They claim that Israel must also make domestic changes to ensure that Diaspora Jews, particularly Jews with Conservative and Reform affiliations, feel welcomed in the homeland of the Jewish people.

What does the Nation-State law mean for minorities?

As a democratic state, Israel will continue to protect the individual and human rights of all of its citizens. Israel’s other basic laws, particularly the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty enshrine Israeli human rights law, protecting the core freedoms of every citizen regardless of religion. Arabic will retain its special status in Israel; Israel’s minorities will continue to practice their respective religions freely and rest on their holidays; and all Israelis, regardless of their ethnic background, will continue to be treated equally before the law.

What does this law mean for the Arabic language in Israel?

The law is explicit in that there will be no change to the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was established. Arabic will continue to appear in signage and official state documents, Members of Knesset will be free to speak in Arabic while addressing the plenary, and Arabic-speaking Israelis are guaranteed access to government services and may appeal to the courts in Arabic.

Israel’s basic laws act as a substitute for a constitution.

After Israel’s founding, lawmakers decided that Israel’s constitution will be formulated over time by introducing basic laws one-by-one. These laws help Israeli courts integrate Israel’s Jewish and democratic characteristics when making decisions.

A new basic law does not abrogate other basic laws and jurisprudence that guarantee equality under the law and the rights of freedoms of every Israeli citizen. For example, the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty enshrines Israeli human rights law, protecting the core freedoms of every citizen regardless of religion. The full list of eleven current basic laws may be read here.

A nation-state is the expression of the sovereignty of one people. The concept of the nation-state is legitimized by the right of a people to self-determination, a core principle of international law. Founded in 1948, the modern nation-state of Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people in their ancestral land – a state for the Jewish people to achieve self-determination after centuries of statelessness and persecution.

Of the eleven other basic laws currently in force, none focus on Israel’s character as the nation-state of the Jewish people (though several make passing reference to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state). Most are concerned with matters similar to constitutions in other democracies, such as the mandate and operation of Israeli government institutions (such as the judiciary, the parliament, the presidency, etc.) or core democratic freedoms (such as human rights, vocational freedoms, religious freedom, etc.)

Earlier drafts of the new basic law on Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people included some controversial excerpts that have since been removed from the final version of the law. This includes a provision that would allow the establishment of “exclusive” communities (ie: allowing residents to restrict residency solely to those of a similar identity) or that would allow the courts to refer to Jewish religious law – both of which were deleted from the final text. Rather most of the law is declarative and enshrines laws that have been previously legislated.

Basic Principles

  • The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.
  • The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.
  • The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

Israel’s establishment as a homeland for the Jewish people was the raison d’être of the Zionist movement. It was also recognized in the Balfour Declaration (“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”) and reaffirmed by the League of Nations – the precursor to the United Nations – shortly thereafter (“The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home…”).

The collective right of the Jewish People to national self-determination should not be confused with individual rights – civil and human rights – that are held by every Israeli citizen, regardless of background or religious affiliation.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence vows to protect the rights of non-Jewish Israelis, promising the state will “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

Symbols of the State

  • The state flag is white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center.
  • The state emblem is a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it.
  • The state anthem is “Hatikvah.”
  • Details regarding state symbols will be determined by the law.

Israel’s flag and national symbols were declared by the first Israeli government in the Flag and Emblem Law which was passed in 1949 shortly after the founding of the state. In 2004, Israel amended this non-controversial law to include its national anthem, “Hatikvah.”

In Canada, Queen Elizabeth II approved the Maple Leaf flg by signing a royal proclamation in 1965, and the Canadian government subsequently legislated the National Anthem Act in 1980.

The Capital of the State

  • Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.

Jerusalem has been central to Jewish identity since it was established as the capital of the Jewish nation by King David more than three thousand years ago.

Since the re-establishment of the modern State of Israel, Jerusalem has been home to Israel’s democratically elected parliament, independent supreme court, and national government offices.

The status of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has already been legislated in Israel’s Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel passed in 1980. This law protects Jerusalem’s holy sites from desecration or “anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them.” The existing law also mandates that a majority of 80 Knesset members is required prior to transferring any part of Jerusalem to a foreign entity.


  • The state’s language is Hebrew.
  • The Arabic language has a special status in the state; Regulating the use of Arabic in state institutions or by them will be set in law.
  • This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.

Prior to the passage of this law, Israel never declared an official language. Rather, Israeli courts referred to the British Mandate of Palestine Order in Council – a document signed in 1922, nearly a quarter-century before the establishment of the State of Israel – which rules that “All Ordinances, official notices and official forms of the Government […] shall be published in English, Arabic and Hebrew. The three languages may be used in debates and discussions in the Legislative Council, in the Government offices and the Law Courts.” The Order in Council legally ended the British occupation of the territory it captured from the Ottoman Empire, and formally established the British Mandate as a political entity that ruled the land until the night before Israel’s declaration of independence.

In 1948, the first Israeli government removed preferential treatment granted to English but kept Arabic. This was interpreted by Israeli courts to mean that Hebrew and Arabic are Israel’s official languages. However, no legislation ever formally established Arabic or Hebrew as the country’s official languages.

Currently, an Arabic translation is attached to most official announcements, especially those intended for the Arab public. Members of Knesset may speak in Arabic while addressing the plenary, and Arab-speaking Israelis may appeal to the courts and other government authorities in Arabic. As well, Arab-speaking citizens may access all public services in Arabic. The law is explicit in that there will be no change to the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created.

The Ingathering of the Exiles

  • The state will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of exiles

Extensive archaeological evidence demonstrates at least three millennia of Jewish presence in the territory now known as Israel. 1,900 years ago, the Jewish people were exiled from the land by the Roman empire. In the centuries since, a small Jewish community has continuously resided in the territory. The large-scale return of Diaspora Jews to the land in the 19th and 20th centuries – through legal land purchase and development – represents the first successful return of an indigenous people to its ancestral territory after centuries of exile.

Following Israel’s establishment, the state created an expedited process for Jews from around the world to immigrate (known as “aliyah”). This is known in Israel as the Law of Return. This process is open to any person with at least one Jewish grandparent, as well as the spouse and children of such a person, even if those applicants do not consider themselves Jewish by religion. This policy was a direct response to the infamous Nuremberg Laws established in Nazi Germany in 1935. Non-Jews can immigrate to Israel and become citizens through a naturalization process similar to Canada’s.

In the years before WWII, many European Jews attempting to flee Nazi persecution were unable to as they were denied admission to other countries. Under the Law of Return, Israel allows Jews to obtain citizenship relatively quickly – ensuring a safe haven for Jews facing antisemitism anywhere in the world.

Israel’s role in the ingathering of Jewish exiles was internationally recognized in 1922, when the League of Nations approved the draft of the Palestine Mandate, which resolved to “facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions.” Israel’s Declaration of Independence specified that the country “will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles;

Many other states have similar laws of return. Some examples include:

  • Poland: The Polish constitution states that “Anyone whose Polish origin has been confirmed in accordance with statute may settle permanently in Poland”
  • Ghana: Ghana grants the right of abode to any “person of African descent in the Diaspora”
  • Greece: The Greek Citizenship Code states that “Foreign nationals of Greek origin may acquire Greek citizenship”

Connection to the Jewish People

  • The state will strive to ensure the safety of the members of the Jewish people in trouble or in captivity due to the fact of their Jewishness or their citizenship.
  • The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.
  • The state shall act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.

This clause reiterates some of Israel’s core functions: To promote the ingathering of Jewish exiles from the Land of Israel, to be a safe haven for all Jewish refugees, and to come to the aid of Jews whose safety is under threat. In the past 70 years, when Diaspora Jewish communities faced antisemitism or were threatened by other events, Israel has rescued hundreds of thousands of Jews in perilous situations, from Ethiopia to the Former Soviet Union. Today, Israel continues to airlift Jews from embattled Yemen and Ukraine.

Israel’s existence as the Jewish nation-state is entirely compatible with the development of thriving Jewish communities in the Diaspora. In Canada, as elsewhere around the world, the Jewish community has made an extraordinary contribution to the historic development of Canadian democracy, society, academia, culture, and countless other areas.

The vast majority of Jewish Canadians view Israel as a core part of their ancestral heritage and religious/cultural identity. Canada is only strengthened by the diversity of cultural and global connections that our many diverse communities have brought to Canadian society, including the Jewish community.

Some have criticized Israeli lawmakers for limiting this clause to “work in the diaspora,” but not Israel. They claim that Israel must also work to ensure that Diaspora Jews, particularly Jews with Conservative and Reform affiliations, feel welcomed in the Jewish homeland.

Jewish Settlement

  • The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

One of Israel’s priorities since its establishment has been to settle the land and promote the creation of Jewish communities. When discussing this clause, Israeli lawmakers made references to the Northern (Galilee) and Southern (Negev) territories of Israel – lands that are not currently in dispute.

It is important to note that the Hebrew word used in the context of this law is “התישבות “ (Hityashvut), which should not be conflated with the term used to describe Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 armistice lines (Green Line) in the historical regions of Judea and Samaria (i.e., the West Bank).

The above notwithstanding, politically charged words like “Judea and Samaria,” “West Bank,” or “Land of Israel” are deliberately absent from this clause.

Official Calendar

  • The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the state and alongside it the Gregorian calendar will be used as an official calendar. Use of the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will be determined by law.

Israel passed an equivalent law, the Use of Hebrew Date Law in 1998, obligating Israeli state and educational institutions to use the Hebrew date on every official letter and publication, but to also use the Gregorian (international) date also be used next to the Hebrew date. The non-controversial law stipulates that its articles do not apply to communal institutions in which a majority of residents are not Jewish, or educational institutions whose primary language is not Hebrew.

Independence Day and Memorial Days

  • Independence Day is the official national holiday of the state.
  • Memorial Day for the Fallen in Israel’s Wars and Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day are official memorial days of the State.

Like other states, Israel passed an Independence Day Law in 1949, a Holocaust Remembrance Day Law in 1959, and a Memorial Day Law for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel in 1963. Similarly, Canadians celebrate Canada Day and observe Remembrance Day.

Days of Rest and Sabbath

  • The Sabbath and the festivals of Israel are the established days of rest in the state; Non-Jews have a right to maintain days of rest on their Sabbaths and festivals; Details of this issue will be determined by law.

In Canada and many other countries where a majority of the population identifies as Christian or of Christian heritage (ie: secular Christians), various Christian holy days serve as public holidays (such as Christmas and Easter) and the weekend includes the Christian Sabbath (Sunday).

In Israel, where the majority of the population is Jewish, the default days of rest are the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) and Jewish holidays. Israel legislated the Jewish holidays to be National days of rest in 1948 through a Law and Administration Ordinance.

In both Canada and Israel, citizens who are not of the majority religion have the legally protected right to observe the days of rest and holidays of their religion.


  • This basic law shall not be amended, unless by another basic law passed by a majority of Knesset members.

Some (but not all) of Israel’s basic laws require a special majority to be amended. As Israel’s Knesset holds 120 seats, future changes to this law would require a minimum majority of 61 Knesset members.

Further Reading

BICOM Briefing: The Nation-State Law reaction and impact

David Hazony: Everything You’ve Heard About Israel’s Nation-State Bill Is Wrong

Times of Israel: An idiot’s guide to the nation-state controversy

Israel Democracy Institute: Nation-State Law Explainer

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