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Passage of new law ends the debate: Israel now officially an apartheid state

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Knesset in Jerusalem, July 31, 2001. Avishai Teicher, via PikiWiki-Israel free image collection project. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Thursday, July 19, Israel ceased being a democracy -- even on paper.

Yesterday's passing of the controversial nation-state bill enshrines into Israel's Basic Laws the definition of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, who now possess "an exclusive right to national self-determination in it."

The new law strips Arabic of official language status, defines the establishment of Jewish settlements as being in the "national interest," and states that Jerusalem -- including occupied East Jerusalem -- is the country's "undivided capital."

A range of Jewish organizations in North America have come out against the bill, worried -- for good reason -- about its impact on the nature of Israel and the effect its passage is likely to have on ever-worsening relations between Israel and Jews living in the diaspora. Jerry Silverman, head of Jewish Federations of North America, went so far as to try to stop the bill from passing, warning that it would "ignite and give fuel to the pro-BDS movement, and not play well in our younger generations who are so committed to social justice and equality."

What many onlookers -- including liberal Jews -- don't seem to realize, however, is that this legislation simply enshrines into law what has always been the reality in Israel. Passage of the law merely lifts the veil, shining light on aspects of Israel that its defenders have long tried to downplay. It is this, sadly, that has prompted such outrage both from within the Israeli establishment and among dominant Jewish organizations abroad.

As Palestinians and an increasing number of others around the world know all too well, Israel has never been a democracy for all of its citizens. This observation does not refer solely to the fact that Israel has ruled over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for over 50 years. Within Israel "proper," Palestinians have nominally enjoyed equal rights, and Arabic has been deemed an official language. But the fact is that Palestinian citizens of Israel have always been treated as second-class citizens. As Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, has documented in its Inequality Report, dozens of Israeli laws discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Left out of the final draft of the controversial new law was a clause that would have officially permitted Jewish communities to refuse residency to Palestinians and others, based solely on their ethnicity or religion. Much like other aspects of the law that were passed, however, there's nothing new about such a practice in Israel. It's just that until now, the state has often outsourced such discrimination to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which, in accordance with its mandate, reserves its landholdings solely for the benefit of Jews. It's a sad fact that the JNF has long received enormous backing from diaspora Jews and continues to be subsidized by governments around the world, including Canada, which grant the organization tax-deductible status. Yet it seems to have taken the passage of a constitutional law whose discriminatory characteristics are unmistakable to generate such widespread revulsion. 

While this new law doesn't change much in practice, it should lay to rest any remaining illusions about Israel's true nature and help present a clearer picture of what Israel is and always has been: a state that privileges half of its population (Jews) while denying the basic rights of the other half (Palestinians), both within Israel and in the occupied territories.

There is, of course, a word for a system that institutionalizes discrimination against one part of its population while conferring privilege on another. Defenders of Israel have long been outraged by those who have labelled Israel as an apartheid state. But with the passage of this new law, it is difficult to argue that the term does not accurately apply to it.

Corey Balsam is the National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJV). Sid Shniad is a member of IJV's national Steering Committee.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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