The Israeli Basic Law, proposed last year to define Israel as a “Jewish nation-state,” caused outcry, but did not reflect new ideas, only new implications, said human rights lawyer Leonard Hammer in a lecture here last week.

Hammer, who lives in Jerusalem, is a visiting professor of modern Israel studies at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies. He works in setting up human rights and educational institutions for nongovernmental organizations, and teaches each spring semester at the University of Arizona. In Wednesday’s talk, part of the Sally and Ralph Duchin Campus Lecture Series held at UA Hillel, 1245 E. Second St., he explained the basic tenets and implications of the proposed law.

Known as “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” the law was proposed for a third time last November by conservative coalition parties Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud, the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hammer said. However, many of these concepts are not clearly defined, and enshrining ideas into law without clarification is problematic, he said.

The language of the law drew harsh criticism and concern about what it might mean for Israel’s minorities, especially its large Arab population.

However, most of the values it would have enshrined are derived from the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Hammer says.

“In Israel, it’s perceived as accepted that Israel is founded on the ideology of ‘Jewish, democratic and human rights,’” Hammer said. Those principles were stated in the Declaration of Independence in 1948, a document Hammer called an “astute recognition of the historical moment” following the Holocaust.

“The Jews needed someplace to go,” Hammer said.

The declaration states many principles and also presents many problems, as in the Right of Return, which guarantees any “member of the Jewish people” a place as a citizen of Israel. The problem is in the application of such broad concepts, creating in this case what Hammer called a “very strange type of situation here in terms of, ‘Who is a Jew?’

“So the purpose of the bill could be said to be to entrench those foundational principles of the state,” Hammer said. “To make these declarations into law, you’re kind of just entrenching your own perceptions of these values. And it’s unclear what the intentions are towards the minorities in Israel. That’s what’s sticking in everybody’s craw.”

Despite using gentler language than previous drafts, the bill drew criticism from academics and officials, including ministers in the Knesset, as well as Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, who opposed the bill.

Whether or not some form of the proposal surfaces in the next Israeli government may depend on whether Netanyahu is able to form a ruling coalition.

Hammer says the law highlighted many important issues currently under debate in Israeli society, and that more discussion would help clarify what Israelis want, along with the laws that will enshrine those desires.

Contact reporter Hannah Gaber at or 573-4179.