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‘This is our country. This is our language’: Controversial law deems Israel homeland of the Jewish people

A controversial new law enacted overnight by Israel's parliament has again stirred deep emotions about the identity of the nation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the new law for enshrining the basic principle of Israel's existence -- that it is the national state of the Jewish people. But critics called it cruel, fearing what it means for the Arab minority. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A controversial new law enacted overnight by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, has again stirred deep emotions about the identity of the Jewish state, and how Israelis seek to define themselves and the others who shared the land of Israel.

    Nick Schifrin is back with that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For years, Israel's rowdy politics have balanced constitutional promises to be Jewish and democratic. Today, lawmakers gave Jews the exclusive right to self-determination and passed a law that supporters called the culmination of Zionism.

    It was praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu (through translator):

    This is a historic moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel. We have made into law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the national state of the Jewish people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But what Netanyahu called historic, critics called cruel. On the Knesset floor, Arab lawmakers ripped up the bill.

    At one point, parliament member Jamal Zahalka was forcibly removed from the debate. Coalition leader Ayman Odeh pulled out a black flag, and, as the parliament speaker objected, Odeh called the law evil.

  • Ayman Odeh (through translator):

    This evil law, a black flag hovers over it. This is a law. That hovers over it, a black flag.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Israel has promised the law won't impede minorities' rights. But in mixed towns like Haifa, with the Bahai World Center up the hill, near a 100-year-old mosque and a nearby church, opponents criticized the law for reducing Arabic to a secondary language.

    Kayed Balan is a shopkeeper.

  • Kayed Balan (through translator):

    This new law, that this is a Jewish state and not a state for all its citizens, this is something that we are ashamed of, and we don't accept it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the bill's supporters argue they are just acknowledging reality, that Israel is 80 percent Jewish, guarantees Jewish immigration, and needs to defend its status as the Jewish homeland.

    Amir Ohana is a member of the ruling Likud Party.

  • Amir Ohana (through translator):

    This is not a binational state. This is not a bilingual state. This is not a double-capital state. This is a state of a single nationality of the Jewish people. Its language is Hebrew, and its capital is Jerusalem.

  • David Makovsky:

    Basically, Israel has moved to the right politically because it believes that the Palestinians don't want peace. And that has created kind of a crowded competition on the right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    David Makovsky is a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He's not in favor of the bill, but says lawmakers recently removed some of its most controversial clauses.

  • David Makovsky:

    They have excised discriminatory elements of this bill, so there's nothing about segregation or that the parliament can override the courts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The law is a basic law, akin to a constitutional amendment. And that means critics will have a hard time challenging it, says Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights.

  • Yousef Munayyer:

    This now becomes a tool through which various discriminatory policies can be supported in the legal system. And thus it enshrines, in a constitutional way, a constitutional defense for discrimination against non-Jews in Israel that did not exist in this way before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Arab Israelis are more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens. They often complain of housing, education, and language discrimination. The law's critics say that discrimination could get worse.

  • Yousef Munayyer:

    A lot of those policies have preexisted this law. What will happen now is that they will be, of course, enshrined into law constitutionally, making legal challenges against them far more difficult, and thus embolden proponents of those laws to advance those policies in ways and in places that they have not done so before.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Trump administration has largely given the Israeli government a green light to do what it wants. The ruling party wasn't united, and the debate was close. But Netanyahu said it was a turning point.

  • Benjamin Netanyahu (through translator):

    There are people who are trying to destabilize this state. So, today, we have made a law in stone. This is our country. This is our language. This is our anthem. And this is our flag. Long live the state of Israel.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Israel's debate between being Jewish and democratic is not over. But this government believes it has tipped the balance, and promises to move forward embracing Israel as the Jewish state.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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