Israel on Thursday passed a law that defines the country as an exclusively Jewish state. The “nation-state” law says “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it,” Reuters reported.

The law also downgrades Arabic as an official language and says that promoting Jewish settlement is in national interest. Arabic will no longer be the official language alongside Hebrew as it has been downgraded to a special status, which enables its continued use in official institutions. The law adds that the “whole and united” Jerusalem is its capital.

The bill, backed by the country’s right-wing government, was made into law after nearly eight hours of debates in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Sixty-two legislators in the 120-member parliament voted for the bill, 55 against it and two abstained.

Israeli Arabs have called the law racist and verging on apartheid. Several Arab members of parliament condemned it and ripped up papers of the law soon after the vote. “I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy,” Arab MP Ahmed Tibi said after the vote.

About 20% of the country’s population constitutes Arabs. Though they have full rights under the law, they have often complained of discrimination and second-class treatment.

“I think this is a racist legislation by a radical right-wing government that is creating radical laws, and is planting the seeds to create an apartheid state,” physician Bassam Bisharah from northern Israel’s Ma’alot-Tarshiha municipality was quoted as saying. Several other residents agreed and claimed Israel wants to “get rid of Arabs totally”.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended the law. “This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said after the vote.

“We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel’s democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides,” he was quoted as saying last week. “An absolute majority wants to ensure our state’s Jewish character for generations to come.”