TEL AVIV—Israel’s parliament passed a law defining the country as a Jewish state, a step supporters say enshrines a basic national principle but that opponents said discriminates against Arab citizens.
The legislation, approved early Thursday after hours of heated debate, declares Israel “the national home of the Jewish people” and says only Jews have “the right to exercise national self-determination.” It also downgrades Arabic from an official language to a “special one.”
“Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens,” Israeli Prime Minister
said after the vote. “This is our state, the Jewish state.”
Supporters of the measure, including members of Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative governing coalition, argued that it was necessary to codify the reason for the founding of the country 70 years ago as a homeland for Jews.
Critics, including opposition lawmakers, Arab politicians and rights groups, said it would strain relations between the Jewish majority and minority populations. More than a fifth of Israel’s nine million people aren’t Jewish.
Parliament passed the law by a vote of 62-55, after some of its most controversial elements—including one that called on the Supreme Court to look to Jewish tradition in cases without legal precedent—were modified or removed.
Such legislation has been considered off and on for decades.
Despite the furor over the bill, Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank in Tel Aviv, said the law’s broad language meant it was unlikely to lead to any immediate practical changes.
“So far it has mainly a symbolic effect,” said Mr. Plesner. Still, it could “drive a wedge between the state of Israel and it’s non-Jewish citizens.”
Members of the Joint List, a political union of Arab parties, tore up copies of the bill and tossed the scraps on the floor of the house.
The group called on the government to focus on strengthening Israel’s democracy rather than focus on its Jewish character.
Any version of a Jewish state that doesn’t give full equality to all citizens “will necessarily be messianic and racist,” Joint List said in a statement.
Days before the law was passed, a clause that effectively legalized the founding of Jewish-only communities was altered to say Israel “views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.”
Since Israel’s founding, members of the Arab minority have complained of being treated as second-class citizens. Israeli officials say all citizens are treated equally under Israeli law.
The new law’s detractors said Mr. Netanyahu’s government was motivated to push the legislation by politics. Mr. Netanyahu’s secular-nationalist Likud party receives support from Ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist parties.
Mr. Netanyahu has sought to consolidate his support as he battles corruption allegations.
The American Jewish Committee, a group that represents the Jewish diaspora, said it was “deeply disappointed” by the new law. The group said the demotion of Arabic as a language and the clause regarding Jewish settlement “put at risk the commitment of Israel’s founders to build a country that is both Jewish and democratic.”
Israel does not have a constitution. Its Declaration of Independence written in 1948 defined Israel as both Jewish and democratic.
Avi Dichter, the Likud lawmaker who drafted the law, said during the debate that its critics were spreading “fake news.”
“This basic law doesn’t hurt the culture of minorities living in Israel, doesn’t hurt their sabbaticals and holidays and certainly doesn’t hurt the Arabic language, which remains a mother tongue for 1.5 million of Israel’s citizens,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign affairs chief,
on Thursday said the law complicates the path to a two-state solution—which would see the birth of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
—Laurence Norman in Brussels contributed to this article.