The new nation-state bill just passed by the Knesset is a long-awaited document that promotes the basic premise, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has so often stated, that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. For that, the Israeli government should be congratulated.
But in certain respects, the bill produces a result that is both less Jewish and less democratic. Being both Jewish and democratic are goals that I thought was the essence of what Israel was trying to be.
First, with regard to the Jewish part, the bill states: “The state shall act within the Diaspora to strengthen the affinity between the state and members of the Jewish people.” Originally, that clause read: “The State will act to maintain the connection between the State and the Jewish people, wherever they are.” Certain Orthodox ministers of Knesset requested, and obtained, the amended language.
Some commentators have characterized this change as patronizing to Jews outside of Israel because it ignores the fact that Israel-Diaspora relations are a two-way street. If Israel is desirous of being the nation-state of the Jewish people, then there must be a two-way street for the whole Jewish people. What is good for the typical Israeli Jew must be what is good for the non-Israeli Jew. Otherwise, why be a nation-state for the Jewish people?
One of the motivations for the change in the language was the desire to limit the impact of non-Israeli Jews on religious pluralism in Israel. The change was meant to avoid claims that Israel needs to further religious pluralism in Israel. But even some Orthodox rabbis in America have had trouble with getting their conversions and weddings recognized.
Israel cannot have it both ways. It cannot want to have as many Jews as possible immigrate to Israel while limiting their Jewish expression once they get there. Israel is putting substantial resources behind the Birthright program, for example, to forge a closer connection between hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout the world and the State and Land of Israel.
As more Jews immigrate, they will bring with them their particular Jewish practices and outlooks. The streams of Judaism are many and diverse. Even within Israel today, there are a number of Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations – and the number is growing. As more Israelis themselves encounter Judaism, they will want the freedom to express themselves in various ways to connect with God. The bill ought to be the culmination of, not a limitation on, the Zionist idea for which Herzl was the modern proponent.
Moreover, the benefits of having a strong and welcomed Diaspora are many. For one, the influence that Jews have on governments and individuals outside of Israel redound to the benefit of Israel every day.
In recalling the meaning of the word “Israel,” it has always represented not just the land or the state, but also the people. In fact, for most of the last 2,000 years, it has meant the people more than it has meant the state. Now to declare itself the nation-state of the Jewish people, without including ALL of the Jewish people, is self-defeating.
With regard to the democratic part, the de-certifying of Arabic as an official language as it has been for 70 years, is an unnecessary slight to the most significant minority in the state. Apart from any consideration of a Palestinian state, to remove the language from its official status is to make it ever more difficult to reconcile the Arab population to the status of the state. In light of the already fraught history between the Jews and the Arabs, why make it that much more controversial?
The emphasis on “Jewish settlement” in the bill also makes it seem that the state is uninterested in how the other 20 percent lives. Again, why make it that much more difficult to move forward with significant parts of the population?
The new nation-state bill should be a most welcome document. But the government has approached it in ways that are detrimental to both Judaism and democracy. If the state is to be both Jewish and democratic, which can be accomplished if proper care is taken, the bill should be modified to correct these flaws.
Harold Kirtz is president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta