Israel’s parliament has approved controversial legislation that defines the country as the nation state of the Jewish people, but critics have warned that it will sideline minorities.
The government said the bill, passed in the early hours, will merely enshrine into law Israel’s existing character.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the legislation’s 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,” the prime minister said. “I repeat, this is our state. The Jewish state.
“Lately, there are people who are trying to destabilise this and therefore destabilise the foundations of our existence and our rights. 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. Long live the state of Israel.”
Opponents say the law marginalises the country’s Arab minority. One clause downgrades the Arabic language from official to “special” standing. Around 20% of Israel’s population is Arab.
The law passed with 62-55 backing, with two members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, abstaining. The legislation is defined as a “basic law”, granting it quasi-constitutional status.
However, it is likely to face a challenge at the Supreme Court.
Politicians took turns to passionately express their views for and against the bill in a rowdy, hours-long debate in parliament.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, pulled out a black flag and waved it during his speech, warning of the implications of the law.
“This is an evil law,” he said and added that “a black flag hovers over it”.
“Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns in the country, that the state has declared that it does not want us here,” Mr Odeh said in a statement following the law’s passage.
“It has passed a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens.”
Benny Begin, son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, the founder of Mr 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.