JERUSALEM – Israel's parliament approved a controversial piece of legislation Thursday that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people but which critics warn sidelines minorities.
The government said the bill, passed in the early morning hours, will merely enshrine into law Israel's existing character. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called its passage a "historic moment in the history of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel."
"Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, which honors the individual rights of all its citizens," he said. "I repeat, this is our state. The Jewish state."
"Lately, there are people who are trying to destabilize this and therefore destabilize the foundations of our existence and our rights," he added. "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. "
Israel's 1948 declaration of independence defined its nature as a Jewish and democratic state, a delicate balance the country has grappled to maintain for 70 years.
Opponents of the new bill said it marginalizes the country's Arab minority of around 20 percent and also downgrades Arabic language from official to "special" standing.
The law passed with a 62-55 backing, with two members of the Knesset abstaining. The legislation, defined as a "basic law" granting it quasi-constitutional status, will likely face a challenge at the Supreme Court.
Lawmakers took turns to passionately express their views in a rowdy, hourslong debate in parliament overnight.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, warned of the implications of the law.
"This is an evil law," he told lawmakers, adding that "a black flag hovers over it."
Odeh said, "It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens."
Benny Begin, son of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the founder of Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, abstained from voting, warning of the party's growing disconnect from human rights.
"This is not a decision I expected from the Likud leadership," he said.
Eugene Kontorovich, international law director at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a conservative Jerusalem think tank, defended the bill, arguing it "is similar to provisions in many Western democratic constitutions, which provide for an official language and national character that reflects the majority of the population."
American Jewish organizations expressed their disapproval, saying the law "puts at risk the commitment of Israel's founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic."