Controversial law cements Israel's status as a Jewish state

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Israel's parliament approved early Thursday a controversial piece of legislation that defines the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people and downgrades the Arabic language's status.

Israel's government says the bill, which would have constitution-like standing, enshrines the country's Jewish character into law, but critics say it marginalizes the country's Arab citizens, which constitute around 20 percent of the population, and threatens Israeli democracy.

It's likely to face a challenge at the Supreme Court, but Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hailed it as an "historic moment in the history of Zionism".

"The Israeli Apartheid law speaks of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Occupying Power, which clearly encourages colonial activities in the occupied lands", a statement by the PM's office said.

"We are proud of being a strong nation deeply rooted in our homeland", Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement.

"This is racist legislation by a radical right-wing government that is creating radical laws, and is planting the seeds to create an apartheid state", said physician Bassam Bisharah, 71, a resident of Ma'alot Tarshiha, a municipality in northern Israel created by linking a Jewish and an Arab town. It stipulates "Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it".

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Called The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People, the legislation essentially defines Israel first and foremost as a Jewish state.

The latter "could be read as a euphemism for the originally proposed endorsement of support for Jewish-only communities in Israel", AJC said.

Even after the changes, critics said the new law will deepen a sense of alienation within the country's minority population.

A range of opposition members denounced the vote, with the head of the mainly Arab Joint List alliance Ayman Odeh describing it as "the death of our democracy".

"As The Israeli-Jewish Congress, our very mission since inception has been the promotion of the principle of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people", Sloutsker said. These include clauses relegating Arabic to a "special" status instead of an official language, promoting the establishment of Jewish communities throughout Israel and addressing the state's relationship with Diaspora Jewry. "Passage of this bill was vital to ensure the continuity of the connection between the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and publicly pronouncing that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people is an essential legislative act that is long overdue".

It said it "seeks to maintain a regime in which one ethnic-national group controls an indigenous-national group living in the same territory while advancing ethnic superiority by promoting racist policies". "I repeat this is our state".