Canada stays mum on controversial Israeli bill

Canada says it is too soon to comment on an Israeli bill that has caused controversy within that country and provoked criticism from several Western allies for threatening to revoke Arabic's official-language status and change wording in the country's basic law about its democratic characteristic.

Jewish nation-state bill, as proposed, would strip Arabic of official-language status

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, arrives to a faction meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem Dec. 3. Israeli lawmakers voted to dissolve the Knesset, paving the way for early elections two years ahead of schedule. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

It's a bill that's caused consternation among Israel's closest allies and drawn condemnation from within Israel.

"We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles," said U.S. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke.

"Does this bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us?" asked Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin.

"It is heartbreaking," editorialized the New York Times, "to see the Israeli cabinet approve a contentious bill that would officially define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, reserving 'national rights' only for Jews."

The Jewish Nationality bill, approved by the Israeli cabinet in late November, has been through various changes in wording, but most versions would strip Arabic of official language status and declare Hebrew the only official language of Israel.

The bill has been panned by mainstream American Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

But unlike the U.S. and the European Union, the Harper government has so far declined to criticize it.

"Canada notes the continued debate over the Jewish Nationality bill in keeping with Israel's robust democracy," says Nicholas Doire, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs. "For this reason, it is too early to comment on specific aspects of the bill at this stage."

But recent events in Israel suggest that the government may not be able to avoid taking a position for long.

Two weeks ago, Israel's coalition government collapsed following disputes over the bill, which is supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and most of his cabinet, but opposed by centrist Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid. An election campaign is now underway and the bill is a central issue.

"I am determined to pass this bill with or without consensus," Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud Party faction last month. "It is very important for securing the future of the nation of Israel, in the Land of Israel, in the State of Israel."

Bill could end bilingualism

One particular aspect of the bill may yet prove particularly controversial in bilingual Canada. Israel has been, since its founding in 1948, an officially bilingual country.

Netanyahu has given assurances that the bill will not affect the individual rights of non-Jews, but said on Nov. 23 that "only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people."

If the bill progresses, the Harper government may find itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, Harper has vowed not to criticize Israel. On the other hand, Canada recently campaigned for, and won, the leadership of la Francophonie on the basis of its commitment to minority language rights.

The parallels are strong: about one-fifth of Israel's citizens are native Arabic-speakers — almost exactly the same  proportion as that of francophones in Canada. And language rights are guaranteed in the basic charter of each country.

Through three controversial Israeli wars since Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, his government has resisted a trend among Western countries towards greater criticism of Israel.

Sweden became the first EU country to recognize a Palestinian state in October. Washington has been increasingly critical of continued settlement construction in Palestinian areas, and the usually-close relations between the U.S. and Israel seem to be at a low point.

'We refuse to single out Israel'

Stephen Harper told the Israeli Knesset in a speech last January that much criticism of Israel was motivated by anti-semitism.

"We refuse to single out Israel for criticism on the international stage," he told the Israeli lawmakers. "It is, quite simply, weak and wrong."

Harper has emphasized Israel's electoral democracy as the cornerstone of Canada's support.

"In the democratic family of nations," he told the Knesset, "Israel represents values which our government takes as articles of faith, and principles to drive our national life. And therefore, through fire and water, Canada will stand with you."

But Israeli critics of the Jewish Nationality bill have argued that it would weaken Israel's commitment to democratic governance.

Israel's founding constitution declares Israel to be a "Jewish and democratic state." The bill would alter Israel's Basic Law so that in any future conflict between Israel's Jewish nature and its democratic nature, the Jewish nature would take precedence.

"We don't need legislation to make Israel a Jewish state," wrote former defence minister and foreign minister Moshe Arens in a recent op-ed article, "and you cannot make it a Jewish state by legislation."

"The suspicion arises that those members of the Knesset who promote the Jewish nation-state bill either do not care what Israel's non-Jewish citizens think about it, or else are attempting to make it clear that the latter are outsiders in this country."


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