Progressive Canadian Jews condemn Israel’s “Nation State” bill as “counter to democratic values”


“Zionism is an infinite ideal” proclaims a huge poster at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. Perhaps that is true for some, but at what cost? After weeks of debate, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved a controversial piece of legislation which enshrines in law the superior status of Jews over others inside the State of Israel. Liberal democrats around the world, including progressive Canadian Jews who hold to the notion of equality, are expressing extreme discomfort. Read more…

This week, Israel’s Knesset (parliament) voted into law an explicitly discriminatory piece of legislation declaring Israel the national homeland for the Jewish people, promoting Jewish-only settlement and deleting Arabic as an official language. It was one of a series of controversial bills approved this week by Israeli lawmakers that have alarmed the Palestinian, and even some of the Jewish, members of the Knesset and been described by critics as anti-democratic or even draconian, reported the Washington Post.

Many Jewish organizations in Canada, the USA and some in Israel are also criticizing Israel’s new “Nation State Law” – a “Basic Law” (or constitutional-level law) in which the words “equality” and “democratic” are entirely absent –  which they say runs counter to democratic values and will damage Israel’s relationship with diaspora communities.

The suite of laws, dealing with a wide range of topics ranging from the Jewish character of the state to the curtailing of left-wing groups critical of the government’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, are seen by some as an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to placate his right-wing government and supporters.

But the new laws are very popular and appear to reflect the increasingly nationalistic (some would say, ‘racist’) trend of the Jewish Israeli public. No Jewish opposition party has declared that they would repeal them.

Some key notions now enshrined in Israeli law…

jewish state bill

Another of the laws approved forbids individuals and groups that promote political criticism of the State of Israel from speaking in Israeli schools. It targets all organizations that act to promote “political proceedings against the State of Israel”.

One clause states that Israel supports and encourages Jewish settlement as a “national value.” In practice this means supporting the establishment of “Jewish only” communities across Israel not open to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. This has long been a practice in Israel, but recently human rights groups have attacked this as undemocratic and discriminatory. The new bill explicitly permits this discriminatory practice.

“To not allow someone to move into your neighbourhood is against democratic values, objected Miriam Pearlman, the president of ARZA Canada, the Reform movement’s Zionist organization, who wrote to Israel’s Ambassador in Canada. “We’re still fighting for Israel to not only be a Jewish homeland, but a democratic state.

The new legislation defines Hebrew as the only official language of the Jewish State, downgrading Arabic. Arabic is the language of nearly 20% of Israeli citizens, and has until now had official status, though that was rarely enforced.

What was the reason for that, other than to antagonize a population that has been part of the State of Israel since its inception, asked Bernie Farber, the communications chair of JSpaceCanada in a comment in the Canadian Jewish News. “It’s the kind of thing that brings Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people, into disrepute.”

Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN), an organization that describes itself as “liberal zionist” also came out in sharp criticism in its newsletter of July 19th.

“The new law will ensure that some citizens are more equal than others,” CFPN declared. “The law states that the Jewish people have the unique right of national self-determination in Israel.”

Ben Murane, CEO of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIFC) sent out a strongly worded letter to his members entitled: Israel passes dangerous nation state law”. 

“This law threatens to undermine Israel’s status as a democracy. (…) It discounts Israel’s founding vision as a country that guarantees equality to all citizens and replaces it with a vision of an exclusively Jewish state.” 

Ben Murane, CEO – New Israel Fund of Canada

Similar concerns are also reflected in statements by liberal Jewish organizations in the USA which have expressed discomfort, disappointment and even anger.

Jeremy Ben Ami, president of J Street, a Washington liberal pro-Israel group, told CBC that the bill’s purpose is “to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens.

“Strong connection between Israel and Jews worldwide is based on these values that Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state,” Ben Ami said, noting the bill would “weaken the strength of Israel’s democracy.”

Potential effect on Canadian Jewish support for Israel

With so many liberal Jewish spokespersons publicly expressing concern, it will be interesting to see what effect these new laws will have on Canadian Jewish support for Israel. Or on their support for the established pro-Israel organizations like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). (As of July 20th CIJA had still not made any comment on the recent Israeli bills.)

Corey Balsam, National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJVC) feels encouraged that so many liberal Jews are daring to speak out.

“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,” noted Balsam and Sid Shniad who is also on the IJVC coordinating committee. “What many onlookers — including liberal Jews — don’t seem to realize” they continue, “is that this legislation simply enshrines into law what has always been the reality in Israel.”

What about the future?

Many Canadians, and most Canadian Jews, support the basic idea of Zionism – that Jews deserve to have a state of their own. But as that the reality of Zionism unfolds, and the exclusive nature of a “Jewish State” becomes clearer, some may begin to reconsider the original idea.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue. We accept guest columnists from time and encourage brief comments (under 100 words) from serious readers. To learn more about what we do, contact us at


  1. The best thing that one can say about this bill is that it marks the end to some of the lying that Israel was doing. For example, Israel was saying that Arabic was an official language. On my first trip to Israel, as I stood in line for passport checking, I noticed that there were three types of interview counters – each one labelled with a language that could be spoken. Hebrew was very prominent. There were many counters for those who spoke English. The third language was not Israel’s (then) official language, it was Russian. I watched as an older Arab woman, with what appeared to be an Israeli passport, waiting longer than I had to wait until they could find someone who could speak to her in Arabic.

    On another trip, I worked for the Council of Higher Education (CHE); I was happy to see that their seal was in 3 languages and one of them was Arabic. However, when I asked what they did in Arabic, I was told “nothing”. One of the higher officials told me, “If Israeli Arabs want to speak with us, they will speak in Hebrew. ”

    The council gave our committee a tour of Jerusalem with an “official” guide. We did have an Arab driver. Our guide told us (proudly) that the driver had exactly the same papers and rights as he did. As we left the bus, I hung behind to ask the driver. He made it clear that that was not true.

    At least now Israelis will have to stop pretending that all citizens have equal rights. Supporters who live outside of Israel can no longer deny the inequality and injustice of the state that they have been supporting.

  2. Thank you for laying out the various aims and outcomes of this spate of “illegal” laws passed by Israel’s lawmakers. We all know that a law does not make a right and certainly not a democracy. But at the same time we need to acknowledge and in a perverted way thank the lawmakers for exposing the hidden reality in Israel i.e. its fundamental and irreconcilable undemocratic nature. Israel is a national-ideological-political experiment to square the circle i.e. democratize a tribal-based entity. So far it has succeeded in getting people in the West to believe the sleight of hand. And now Israel is saying “we won’t even try to trick you anymore.” The remaining question is what will it achieve in curtailing Israel’s trajectory of gross apartheid and undemocratic/fascist rule? Unfortunately, momentary pronouncements by liberal Zionist will hardly do it. The only thing that will is strong condemnation and action by Canada’s parliament or US congress and their media allies. The rest is destined for the blah-blah heap.

    1. Hey Robert, in my view, Canada’s parliament wont do much about this as long as the Jewish community in Canada is pretty solidly in support of the Zionist idea of a Jewish State. Partly because Jews are influential (votes and $$) but also because Canadian Jews have many non-Jewish friends who defer to them with respect to Israel. That is why the growing cracks between what Israel IS and what liberal Jews THINK IT IS, OR THINK IT SHOULD BE, are very important.

      1. Yes as you say and this is the crux of the matter – where is the individual Jew’s greater duty and allegiance?

        The wiser heads among world Jewry in the early 20th century understood that Zionism would be the wedge that would place every Jew in a peculiar and daily position of having to choose between biblical-based tribe and modern universal principles of democracy and equality. Not to mention actual resident country. To the great detriment of world security based on international law and UN mediation so far those sages have proven correct.

  3. The whole Zionist project is apocalyptic. It is completely out of control now. It has violated human dignity for too long. Its genocidal and fanatic occupation plan has put the global community at high risk and there is no hope for decency, justice and even survival of the people of Palestine.

    What parliament in a civilized and democratic world would allow or pass such discriminatory laws to say that it is OK to steal land, it is Ok to segregate people, it is Ok to continue double genocide, it is OK to abuse children and jailed them without any warrant, it is OK to bulldoze their schools and homes………This has been a norm for the parliament for many many years now. This is nothing but a Zionist killing machine that will continue to intimidate the world, it must be detained.

    Just to criticize or feeling uncomfortable or disappointed with the laws……that’s all? Well, this is not good enough. If we believe in social and democratic justice, if we accept truth and reconciliation, If humanity has any value, one must reject this regime in all fronts, most importantly politically, socially, economically, and morally.

    On a political stage, hypocrisy runs very deep in Canadian Politics as all three parties blindly support the crimes of this regime that must be transformed into fairness, justice and impartiality if we want to see an independent Palestinian state.

    I personally feel, that world has failed miserably to protect Palestinians rights and their homes while providing big-heartedly everything to the criminals, land occupiers and slayers to carry-on the injustice for so long……….a complete human dignity defilement, so sad, we still live!

    1. Hey Muazzam, I sympathise with your frustration. But I hasten to point out that Israel is not the first, and will probably not be the last country to do so. Democracies like USA and Canada did very analogous things to our indigenous peoples.

      And I actually don’t agree with the analysis that our political parties are driven by hypocrisy, tho there is lots of that, too. They are driven by the fact that while they don’t like what Israel is doing, they accept the idea that a Jewish State is necessary to protect Jews.

  4. As others are saying on other websites, these new laws officially introduce Apartheid as the bedrock of Israel’s existence. Apparently democracy now depends not on politics but your choice of religion or mythology.

    And here in Canada our media, including many that have staffers in Israel who have been too busy worrying about Palestinian children with kites, continues to ignore the most straight forward acknowledgement ever that democracy isn’t for everyone.

    Adalah, The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, July 19/18

    “Israeli parliament votes to approve Nation-State Law that enshrines Jewish supremacy over Palestinian citizens”

    “New Basic Law approved by a Knesset vote of 62-55 has distinct apartheid characteristics and requires racist acts as a constitutional value.”

    “This law guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism, and systemic inequality.

    “The Jewish Nation-State Basic Law is the ‘law of laws’ capable of overriding any ordinary legislation.

    “The law will apply to areas known as the ‘Green Line’, where nearly twenty percent of the population are Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as to territories occupied in 1967 such as Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, which were annexed to the territory of the State of Israel by law. This annexation is considered illegal under international law.

    “Adalah General Director Hassan Jabareen responded to the Israeli parliament’s vote to approve the Nation-State Law:

    “’The Jewish Nation-State Law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral but also absolutely prohibited under international law. The new law constitutionally enshrines the identity of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only – despite the 1.5 million Palestinian citizens of the state and residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – and guarantees the exclusive ethnic-religious character of Israel as Jewish. By defining sovereignty and democratic self-rule as belonging solely to the Jewish people – wherever they live around the world – Israel has made discrimination a constitutional value and has professed its commitment to favoring Jewish supremacy as the bedrock of its institutions.’”

  6. The Jewish nation state law is disappointing and certainly against the values of equality and equal protections in modern democracies.

  7. As I was saying before computer mistakenly posted the first sentence. The Jewish nation state law is disappointing and certainly goes against the values of equality and equal protection in modern democratic states of which Israel bills itself as the only one in the Middle East. But Canada, USA and other democratic western and emerging nations have not said a thing in criticism. The UNHRC and the UN Special Rapporteur will eventually have their say, while the UNSC will remain stymied. Most severe condemnations have come from Turkey,Saudi Iran, Arab league and members of the Organization of Islamic Conference – understandably worried about the status of Israeli Arab Palestinians who are mainly Muslim. And the most heartfelt and passionate albeit intelligent and moderate criticism has come from progressive and peace oriented Jewish groups and individuals from Israel, North American and around the world.

    The lesson is that this new law simply reinforces in law and practice the Jewish state of Israel which has existed since its Declaration of Independence in 1948 and will continue to exist as long as it can sustain itself as a Jewish state. This is clearly not apparent with the adverse demographic trends of an increasingly majority Arab Palestinian population from the sea to the river stemming in part from the reluctance of Jews to remain in or to do aliya to Israel in its current state and much higher Palestinian reproductive capacity. Control and oppression by Jewish Israel of the Arab Palestinian population, both Israeli and occupied, cannot endure.

    Situation argues more than ever for a two state solution of Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine with their capitals in West and East Jerusalem respectively and fully sovereign rights for security, borders, citizenship and migration policy and appropriate guarantees for the minority Jewish and Arab Palestinian populations in each state. Land and population transfers and free movement of people would invariably ease the ethno religious tensions. The internationalization of the old city with open access for the Jewish Christian and Islamic holy sites would be essential for religious freedom and harmony. International buy in would be assured by adhering to the spirit of the UN resolutions and having the whole package backed by the UNSC,

    All the criticism and non criticism of the Jewish state law {even by famous and renowned Jewish Israelis quoted in Peter’s succeeding post and Jewish peace progressives, whether or not Zionist} and calls for an Israel Palestine state equal for all its citizens and residents {Quaddafi talked about “Israetine” in one long speech that I had to sit through} will not work. Only the emergence of a sovereign Arab state of Palestine, even with all the resistance to this inside the hard line political system in Israel, will ensure human political rights for Arab Palestinians as well as the survival of the Jewish state of Israel. Its simply a matter of international will !

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