Israel's parliament passed a controversial law early Thursday that declares only Jews have a right to national self-determination in Israel, drawing criticism from human rights organizations and Arabs who called it racist and said it amounted to apartheid.
The "nation-state" law, backed by the right-wing government, passed 62-55 with two abstentions in the 120-seat Knesset after months of political debate and after some parts were softened over concerns it would damage Israel's international image.
The bill states that "Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people" and "the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people." It also downgrades Arabic from an official language alongside Hebrew to a "special" one, and declares Jerusalem the united capital of Israel.
The law also instructs the state to preserve the Jewish heritage within the diaspora, and contains passages about national holidays, the flag, the anthem and making the Hebrew calendar the official calendar.
The measure enters Israel's Basic Law, which is similar to a constitution.
Israel has 1.9 million Arab citizens, or about 21 percent of the total population of 9 million. Another 5 percent of the population consists of non-Arab Christians or other ethnic groups.
'The majority decides'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the law enshrined the principle of Jewish existence.
"Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state — the Jewish state," he said.
Last week, Netanyahu vowed to ensure all civil rights were protected, but said "the majority also has rights and the majority decides."
Arab lawmakers scream 'apartheid'
On paper, Israeli Arabs – who are mainly Palestinians – have full rights unlike Palestinians in the occupied territories, but they often complain of discrimination in housing, employment, education and services.
After the vote, Arab lawmakers tore up what they called an "apartheid law, a racist law."
They were subsequently thrown out of the Knesset plenum hall, Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
Ahmed Tibi, an Israeli-Arab lawmaker with the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties and the third-largest faction in the Knesset, told reporters: "I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy."
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, wrote on Twitter that the "tyranny" of the majority had squashed the rights of the minority.
"Separation, discrimination, supremacy and racism have now been enshrined into the Basic Law," he wrote, calling on Jewish and Arab democrats to unite against nationalism and racism.