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Israel Is A Homeland For Jewish People — But Is It A Jewish State?


Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jewish people. Now a proposal to define it in law as a Jewish state has become a hot-button political issue. Opponents say it is an undemocratic blurring of religion and government. And as NPR's Emily Harris explains, it could have international repercussions.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The 1948 document declaring Israel's statehood names Israel as the place for Jews to be masters of their own fate. It also guarantees the social and political rights of all inhabitants. Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told parliament that he believes the balance between the Democraticness of Israel and the Jewishness of Israel has gotten out of whack. Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev...

MARK REGEV: The Democratic side has, of course, been codified in a series of laws, and now the Jewish side will also be codified.

HARRIS: Sounds simple, but it's thrown politics into an uproar. Lawmakers interrupted Netanyahu with yells and jeers. Earlier this week, Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, used his largely ceremonial post to warn that the proposed law could highlight contradictions between being a Jewish state and a Democratic one. Yohanan Plesner heads the Israel Democracy Institute.

YOHANAN PLESNER: The way that it was brought up is very much demonstrates that there are political motivations behind it.

HARRIS: A former center-left member of parliament, Plesner says it's an emotional issue - handy to bring up now because Israel's coalition government is hampered by disagreements and talk of new elections is in the air.

PLESNER: It's not only the prime minister. In the Israeli right there's a big competition on who is going to be the bearer of the message and the leader. And so there's a simple competition for market share.

HARRIS: The proposal also affects negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu says Israel cannot recognize a Palestinian state unless Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi says recognizing Israel as Jewish ignores Palestinian history and could prevent Palestinians from returning to places in Israel they fled or were forced from during wars.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Look, I don't mind how countries define themselves provided they know the consequences and the implications, and they don't do it at my expense.

HARRIS: Palestinian negotiators have recognized Israel, she notes. And that is as far, she says, as they will go. About a quarter of Israeli citizens are not Jewish. Most are Arabs, primarily Palestinians. Political scientist Amal Jamal is among them. He says even under current law, Arab-Israeli citizens face discrimination in planning rules, naturalization laws and attitudes.

AMAL JAMAL: On a daily basis, Arabs are portrayed in the Israel media as either enemies or strangers or dangerous or culturally inferior or morally inferior. And they think it's part of Israeli political culture.

HARRIS: Israelis accuse Palestinians of the same attitudes. Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev says the proposed legislation has a lot of support.

REGEV: I think if you look at the polling, the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public supports codifying Israel as the Jewish state. That gives fully equality to all Israeli citizens irregardless of their ethnicity or their creed.

HARRIS: Regev acknowledges what he calls historic gaps in inequality and says those should be remedied. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.