Where Do You Stand?

Two weeks ago I wrote about the new Nation-State law passed in Israel. It certainly has its supporters, yet also raised a great deal of concern in Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities around the world. 

It is important to note that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) representatives were at the Knesset lobbying to members on all sides of the issue. Following the vote, JFNA stated, “As strong supporters of Israel, we were disappointed that the government passed legislation which was effectively a step back for all minorities.” The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and both the Reform and Conservative movements have also raised their objections.

Since there are so many “sides” to this issue, I thought it would be prudent to share comments from thought leaders (including links to their entire articles) that provide context to the subject:

Ambassadors Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat wrote the following editorial in The Forward

There is the recently adopted Nation-State law which declares that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — something we fervently believe in — but unlike Israel’s Declaration of Independence, drops any reference to democracy and equality. It also makes Arabic a language only of special, not equal, status.

None of this means that Israel is no longer a democracy, or is a state that is no longer governed by the rule of law. It is…Still, if the current trends continue, they will weaken Israel’s democratic tradition, increase the partisan divide, foster alienation among Diaspora Jewry and erode their identification with Israel. As the state of the Jewish people, Israel also has an obligation and responsibility to the Diaspora. It cannot be a one-way street.

In Times of Israel, David Horovitz wrote:

Israel’s incoming opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, said she had repeatedly urged government legislators in the run-up to July 19’s passage of Israel’s new Jewish nation-state law to add in a single crucial phrase.

She had no objection to the text declaring Israel to be “the national home of the Jewish people.” Quite the reverse. But to ensure that the law fully reflected modern Israel’s founding principles, she argued, it also needed to include Israel’s commitment to “equality for all its citizens.” 

Had that “equality” phrase been inserted, most or all the rest of the opposition would have supported it, and the law would have garnered about 100 of the 120 Knesset members’ votes, rather than squeezing through, as it did, by 62 votes to 55. 

Eugene Kontorovich supported the law in the Wall Street Journal:

Israel finally expressed in constitutional law the basic achievement of Zionism: Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people…In reality, Israel’s Basic Law would not be out of place among the liberal democratic constitutions of Europe—which include similar provisions that have not aroused controversy. The law does not infringe on the individual rights of any Israeli citizen, including Arabs; nor does it create individual privileges. The illiberalism here lies with the law’s critics, who would deny the Jewish state the freedom to legislate like a normal country.

The nation-state law declares that Israel is a country established to instantiate the Jewish people’s “right to national self-determination.” It constitutionalizes symbols of that objective—the national anthem, holidays and so forth. There is nothing undemocratic or even unusual about this. Among European states, seven have similar “nationhood” constitutional provisions.

In a New York Times editorialRabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who advocates for a more inclusive religious establishment in Israel, wrote:

With the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, David Ben-Gurion and others transformed that biblical vision into modern reality. Israel’s Declaration of Independence states that the state “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

It is a stirring vision worthy of our people’s storied and painful history. But Israel still has a long way to go to realize the vision of the prophets of Israel — or to address the needs of the world’s 14 million Jews.

David Suissa of the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles shared:

The law is not a game changer and has very little problematic implications. It won’t change how the country is run. 

So, while Arabs and other minorities will not suffer injury and will have the same civil liberties as before — the same freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to protest, freedom of the press, etc. — many of them may feel insulted and diminished because the “Jewish” part of “Jewish state” will become more official. 

Presumably, critics of the Nationality Law would have had no problem with beefing up the “democratic” part of the equation. That would have triggered no controversy. But to beef up the Jewish part? That’s not as popular.”

Joshua Runyan, editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, challenges us with:

There is indeed a rift in the Jewish community – a gulf between the relative value placed on the pluralistic ideal by Jews in the Diaspora and the Israelis who call Israel home. That fact certainly demands dialogue, but American Jews should not fool themselves into believing that they can lecture their Israeli cousins, whether from abroad or on the ground in Jerusalem, into submission on an issue that ranks behind the economy and national security.

Since the law passed, the controversy continues to intensify. Some critics consider the law to constitute the legislative codifying of discrimination, and therefore bitterly interpret it as “the beginning of — or another slip in the continuing slide toward — the end of Israeli democracy.”

Others share Prime Minister Netanyahu’s declared assertion that it marks a positive “pivotal moment” in the history of the modern state, with the belated formalized legislation of Israel as the state of the Jews, and argue that Israel’s democratic principles are already in existing legislation. 

Where do you stand?

Shabbat shalom.




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