JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has long demanded that the Palestinians acknowledge his country as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” On Thursday, his ruling coalition stopped waiting and pushed through a law that made it a fact.
In an incendiary move hailed as historic by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition but denounced by centrists and leftists as racist, anti-democratic, and potentially fatal to ideals of equality, Parliament enacted a foundational law that enshrines the right of national self-determination in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people” — not to all of its citizens.
The legislation, a “basic law” — giving it the weight of a constitutional amendment — omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality, in what critics called a betrayal of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which ensured “complete equality of social and political rights” for “all its inhabitants” no matter their religion, race, or sex.
The new law promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies. And it downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.”
Since Israel was established, it has grappled with the inherent tensions between its dual aspirations of being both a Jewish and a democratic state. The new law, portrayed by proponents as restoring that balance in the aftermath of judicial rulings that favored democratic values, nonetheless struck critics as an effort to tip the scales sharply toward Jewishness.
Its passage demonstrated the ascendancy of ultranationalists in Israel’s government, who have been emboldened by the gains of similarly nationalist and populist movements in Europe and elsewhere, as Netanyahu has increasingly embraced illiberal democracies like that of Hungary — whose far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, arrived in Jerusalem for a friendly visit only hours before the vote.
With the political opposition too weak to mount a credible threat, and with the Trump administration providing a large degree of US support, Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing and religious coalition in Israel’s 70-year history, has been pressing its advantages on multiple fronts.
It has sought to exercise more control over the news media, erode the authority of the Supreme Court, curb the activities of left-wing advocacy groups, press ahead with moves that amount to de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank, and undermine police by trying to thwart or minimize the effect of multiple corruption investigations against the prime minister.
Police have already recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery in two inquiries.
But none of these expressions of raw political power has carried more symbolic weight than the new basic law.
“This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the annals of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said after the bill was enacted in the early morning after hours of impassioned debate, just before the Knesset, or Parliament, went into summer recess.
“We have determined in law the founding principle of our existence,” he said. “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and respects the rights of all of its citizens.”
Opponents say the law will inevitably harm the fragile balance between the country’s Jewish majority and Arab minority, which makes up about 21 percent of a population of nearly 9 million.
If the new law was meant to give expression to Israel’s national identity, it exposed and further divided an already deeply fractured society. It passed in the 120-seat Parliament by a vote of 62 to 55, with two abstentions. One member was absent.
Moments after the vote, Arab lawmakers ripped up copies of the bill while crying out “Apartheid!” Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, which holds 13 seats and is the third-largest bloc in Parliament, waved a black flag in protest.
“The end of democracy,” declared Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Arab legislator, charging the government with demagoguery. “The official beginning of fascism and apartheid. A black day (another black day),” he wrote on Twitter.
Yael German, a lawmaker from the centrist opposition party Yesh Atid, called the law “a poison pill for democracy.”
The law is now one of more than a dozen basic laws that together serve as the country’s constitution and can be amended only by a majority in the Knesset. Two others, on human dignity and on liberty and freedom of occupation, both enacted in the 1990s, determine the values of the state as both Jewish and democratic.
The basic laws legally supersede the Declaration of Independence and, unlike regular laws, have never been overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.
Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said that while largely only declaratory, the new law “will give rise to arguments that Jews should enjoy privileges and subsidies and rights, because of the special status that this law purports to give to the Jewish people in Israel.”
“In that regard,” he added, “this is a racist law.”
Some supporters lamented that many of the law’s more polarizing clauses had been diluted to assure passage. Critics decried it as a populist measure that largely sprang from the perennial competition for votes between Netanyahu’s conservative party, Likud, and political rivals to its right.
“I don’t agree with those saying this is an apartheid law,” said Amir Fuchs, an expert in legislative processes and liberal thought at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research group in Jerusalem. “It does not form two separate legal norms applying to Jews or non-Jews,” he said.
But he added, “Even if it is only declarative and won’t change anything in the near future, I am 100 percent sure it will worsen the feeling of non-Jews and especially the Arab minority in Israel.”