The head of the umbrella organization Jewish Federations of North America returned from Israel empty handed last week after a last-ditch effort to stop passage of a controversial bill that critics say discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority and will further strain the relationship between progressive American Jews and the Jewish state.
Jerry Silverman said he met with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and members of Knesset to discourage passage of the so-called nation-state bill.
The Knesset, as Silverman predicted, passed the bill.
“We strongly suggested that this would not play well,” Silverman said. “That it would ignite and give fuel to the pro-BDS movement, and not play well in our younger generations who are so committed to social justice and equality.” Silverman was referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a law of the highest importance to ensure the core of Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”
As passed, the bill became a Basic Law, with semi-constitutional status. Its central tenet is that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.
This is uncontroversial, leading critics to say such a law is unnecessary because no one disputes the premise. The Likud-sponsored legislation also enshrines as the country’s symbols “Hatikvah” as the national anthem, the blue-and-white flag with the Star of David, the seven-branch menorah as the state symbol and the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar.
These have been Israel’s symbols since independence. But critics see other changes from precedent as discriminatory toward Israel’s Arab minority.
Arabic, which since 1948 has been an official language alongside Hebrew, has been downgraded to a “special language.”
Another clause, since amended, would have given constitutional heft to segregated communities. That clause was criticized by President Reuven Rivlin and the attorney general. The new wording says that developing Jewish settlements is in the national interest. Critics say that could be the legal basis for second-class status of Israel’s Arab citizens.
“I’m a supporter of this being a nation-state, everyone is,” Fuchs said. “We’re sending a message as if there’s a real dispute in Israel about whether it’s the nation-state of the Jewish people, when there is none.”
Silverman said that while in Israel, he expressed his concerns about the language and settlements clauses. These would not affect Jews in the Diaspora directly. But another clause would.
It states that “the state will take action to maintain the connection between the state and the Jews of the Diaspora.”
Silverman called the wording patronizing and said that it would impede efforts to encourage religious pluralism in Israel, particularly at the Western Wall.
“This language has the ability to be interpreted by the courts and could be used as a filter to block any type of pluralistic petitions by any individual organization that is trying to advance pluralism in the state of Israel,” Silverman said.
Last week, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs released a statement “vehemently” opposing the legislation, calling it a “grave threat to Israeli democracy.”
“It is a 180-degree turn from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which enshrines freedom and democracy for all Israelis,” Jacobs’ statement read. “It hurts the delicate balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, and it enthrones ultra-Orthodox Judaism at the expense of the majority of a pluralistic world Jewry.”
Guy Ziv, a professor at American University’s Center for Israel Studies, said that the Netanyahu government’s move to the religious and political right has been domestically popular so far. But he warned that it will further strain the relationship between progressive American Jews and Israel.
“The biggest problem with the bill is that it’s racist,” Ziv said. “It talks about separating Jewish-only communities, it relegates the Arabic language. … You have to see it as part of a series of bills that are populist and nationalist in nature, that are tinged with racism and that undermine Israeli pluralism.”
Silverman said he was hopeful that growth in the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel will create a grassroots push for religious equality. But he admitted that being a voice for religious pluralism in the Knesset is frustrating.
“When you have ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset that are publicly saying that they will do everything they can to not recognize non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, it’s a challenge.” PJC