Progressive American Jewish Groups Troubled By Israel’s Divisive Nation-State Law

The Reform and Conservative movements, which together represent about half of Jewish Americans, have voiced objections to the law.

Progressive American Jewish organizations are reacting with dismay to Israel’s new “nation-state” law, claiming that the legislation damages the country’s image as a democratic nation. 

The controversial new law, backed by Israel’s right-wing government and approved Thursday, declares that only Jewish people have the right of “self-determination” in the country and downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.” As one of Israel’s Basic Laws, the measure supersedes the country’s Declaration of Independence and has the weight of a constitutional amendment.

Many Israeli Arab lawmakers condemned the law as racist and said it turns the country’s 1.8 million Arabs into “second-class citizens,” The Associated Press reports. 

Across the pond, many American Jewish organizations are also voicing their objections to the law. While some groups applauded the law for affirming the essential Jewish character of Israel, many leaders were concerned the measure could be a threat to Israeli democracy. 

The Union for Reform Judaism, which represents the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., said it “passionately” opposed the new law because of its “harmful effect” on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. 

“This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy,” the group’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, wrote Thursday. “The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.”

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing the second largest of the three main American Jewish denominations, was also uneasy about the implications of this law. The group declined to make an official statement about the bill, pointing instead to a blog from an Israeli Conservative rabbi whom the group said represents the denomination’s position on the matter.

Rabbi Mikie Goldstein wrote in the blog that the legislation “allows for discrimination against minorities in Israel” and said there is a “thick black line” connecting the “divisive” nation-state law and Israel’s brief detention of a Conservative rabbi this week. Rabbi Dov Haiyun of Haifa, who was detained and released Thursday, was reportedly targeted for presiding over Jewish weddings not recognized by the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

“Israel cannot claim to be the home of the Jewish people (as the nation-state bill claims) if it does not allow non-Orthodox Jews to practice their Judaism according to their customs,” Goldstein wrote. “Israel cannot claim to be a light unto the nations if it officially discriminates against its own minorities.”

Some American Jewish organizations ― the National Council of Jewish Women, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and other progressive groups ― issued strongly worded condemnations of the bill. 

The progressive Zionist group Ameinu called the law “superfluous and intentionally provocative.”

“By distinguishing between the rights of Jews and all other citizens of Israel, this bill weakens Israel[’s] commitment to democracy and makes Israel less than a state of all of its citizens,” said Ameinu President Kenneth Bob. 

Israeli-Arab Member of Parliament Ahmed Tibi (front row, right) with fellow deputies at the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahea
Israeli-Arab Member of Parliament Ahmed Tibi (front row, right) with fellow deputies at the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahead of the vote on a national law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the oldest American Jewish advocacy groups, said it was “deeply disappointed” by “questionable elements” of the bill, including the part of the law that demotes the Arabic language to “special status.”

The Anti-Defamation League, another prominent advocacy group, said Thursday that there are “problematic elements” in the nation-state law that raise questions about Israel’s commitment to pluralism. The ADL supported that the law enshrined the Jewish character of Israel, especially in regard to state symbols like the anthem, flag and capital, but was worried about how the law would affect Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and Jewish people in the diaspora. 

“Now that this law has been passed by the Knesset, the State of Israel has an obligation to ensure that, in practice, this Basic Law is not used to discriminate against minorities, particularly its Arab citizens, and that the state maintains its commitment to improve relations between Jews in Israel and those around the world,” the ADL said in a statement.

Some American Jewish organizations were more supportive of the new law.

A representative for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations told HuffPost that she “doesn’t believe we are going to comment.” However, the group’s rabbinic counterpart, the Rabbinical Council of America, told HuffPost that it “fully endorse[s]” how the law enshrines the Jewish nature of Israel. The Orthodox rabbis also reject the notion that the nation-state law marginalizes Arab Israelis. 

“The exclusive right to self determination for Jews is a way of ensuring the state remains Jewish [and] is intended to ensure that the only Jewish state in the world never becomes another Muslim state,” Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, the Israel director of the Rabbinical Council of America, told HuffPost in an email. ”The Arab citizens are guaranteed freedoms and rights in Israeli law. Nothing in this law impacts these robust freedoms.” 

Israeli members of Parliament attend the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahead of the vote on the law that establishes Jewi
Israeli members of Parliament attend the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahead of the vote on the law that establishes Jewish people's "unique" right to self-determination in Israel on July 18, 2018.

Only about 10 percent of Jewish Americans are Orthodox. About half identify with either the Reform (35 percent) or Conservative (18 percent) movements.

Very few Jewish people in Israel identify with these groups. Most Israeli Jews have different labels for expressing their Jewish identity and are generally more familiar with Orthodox Judaism. The majority of Israeli Jews self-identity as secular. 

Jewish Americans and Israeli Jews have long held differing views on Israeli policies and the peace process. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that Israeli Jews are, overall, skeptical about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About 43 percent of Israeli Jews said that Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully. On the other hand, about 61 percent of American Jews said the same.



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