WASHINGTON (JTA) – It’s not unusual to hear U.S. Jewish groups speaking out against laws that discriminate and framing their protests as protecting Jewish interests.
What’s unusual is that the target this time is the Israeli government and the proposed law emphasizes Jewish rights.
At issue is Israel’s nation-state bill, which if passed by the Knesset would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state into law. Proponents say the bill would reinforce the Jewish character of Israel, but opponents charge that it would jeopardize the state’s democratic character and undermine Israel’s Arab minority.
Most major American Jewish groups weighing in on the debate are against it.
“It is troubling that some have sought to use the political process to promote an extreme agenda which could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewish one,” the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the first group to speak out against the bill, said in a statement Nov. 24, a day after the Israeli Cabinet approved a version of the bill.
American Jewish groups against the measure outline two broad reasons for their opposition: the fear that it is ammunition for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish forces already feeding off the aftermath of Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and recent tensions in Jerusalem; and the fear that Israel is drifting from its democratic character, particularly in laws and practices that target minorities and women.
“The proposed Jewish state bill is ill-conceived and ill-timed,” Kenneth Bandler, the American Jewish Committee’s spokesman, told JTA in an email.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said the bill provides cover for Israel’s enemies.
“It’s an unnecessary debate, it has spillover and provides fodder,” he said. “What comes out of this? Nothing.”
Other major groups opposing or expressing reservations about the proposed law include the Reform and Conservative movements, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) is among the few U.S. Jewish groups that have taken a stand in favor of the nation-state bill.
“Non-Jewish citizens live and are welcome in Israel, but the Israeli state, its institutions, laws, flag, and anthem reflect the history and aspirations of the people who founded it with their labour, resources and blood,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department has said that it expects “final legislation to continue Israel’s commitment to democratic principles.”
In Israel, the opposition to the bill is led by President Reuven Rivlin. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backs the law – although he has yet to settle on final language – and has pledged to bring it to the Knesset for a vote as early as next week.
As a “basic law,” the law would have constitutional heft. Its backers say giving Israel’s Jewishness a constitutional underpinning is increasingly necessary given attempts to delegitimize the state.
“The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said Nov. 23. “It has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state.”
Such talk induces uneasiness in American Jews who over decades have been invested in an Israel in which Jewishness and democracy have successfully melded in equal parts, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA.
“Let us strengthen Israel’s democratic foundation,” Jacobs said, noting in an interview a recent proliferation of attacks on minorities in Israel as well as statements from Israeli politicians elevating the Jewish character of the state over its democratic values. “If anything needs strengthening, that’s what needs strengthening,” he said, referring to democratic values.
U.S. Jewish groups generally confine their criticism of Israel’s government to issues of status that affect Israel’s Jewish citizens, like the treatment of the non-Orthodox religious streams and discrimination against women. They avoid criticism – at least in public – that would feed into attempts by Israel’s enemies to depict it as racist and exclusionary.
This bill is an exception, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice-president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said in an interview, because it has broader implications than a single decision involving the Palestinians that might draw controversy.
“This law speaks fundamentally to the democratic nature of Israel,” she said.
Schonfeld said Jewish-American sensitivities already were sharpened because of a series of legislative initiatives in Israel that would limit the rights of the non-Orthodox and practices that discriminate against women, like segregation on some buses. Particularly galling, she said, was a law that a ministerial committee maintained this week that criminalizes marriage by non-Orthodox rabbis.
“These laws that violate religious freedom are building blocks to anti-democratic legislation,” Schonfeld said.
The nation-state law also has drawn criticism from liberal Jewish groups that in the past have not hesitated to target what they see as discriminatory Israeli policies. Among the groups are Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund and J Street.
Rachel Lerner, a J Street vice president, said American Jews have internalized democracy and equal rights for all as Jewish values in part because of the protections they have been afforded in the United States.
“We’ve had equal rights because this country is so accommodating, so there’s a lot of sensitivity toward that,” Lerner said.
Several major groups, including the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Federations of North America, have yet to weigh in. A source close to Jewish Federations said the umbrella body wants to see a final draft of the bill before pronouncing.
Netanyahu reportedly is seeking ways to include in the bill an emphasis on Israel’s democratic nature and its commitment to equal rights.
The JCPA in its statement called for postponing Knesset consideration of the bill and urged that the final draft make clear that Israel remains committed to equal rights.
“If they’re going to do this bill, it should be incredibly clear that there is no intention to diminish the rights of citizens who are not Jewish,” JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, told JTA.
Schonfeld said the law is the wrong solution to whatever anxieties are driving its proponents.
“This is a time of great anticipatory anxiety among Jews, and it calls for signal courage and not to give in to fears,” Schonfeld said. “This seems to be legislation motivated by fear and not by courage.”