It’s not unusual to hear American Jewish groups speaking out against laws that discriminate, 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, the first group to speak out against the bill, said in a Nov. 24 statement, 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: fear that it will further inflame anti-Israel and anti-Jewish forces in the aftermath of the Gaza war as well as recent tensions in Jerusalem; and 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, wrote 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, the umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups.
The Zionist Organization of America is among the few U.S. Jewish groups that have taken a stand in favor of the 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 labor, resources and blood,” ZOA President Morton Klein said in a statement.
In Israel, 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, said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Let us strengthen Israel’s democratic foundation,” Jacobs said, noting 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.
Several major groups, including the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Fed-
erations of North America, have yet to weigh in. A source close to JFNA said the umbrella body wants to see a final draft of the bill before issuing a pronouncement.
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,” said JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow.