Knesset - Emil Salman - November 14, 2011.
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman in the Knesset, November 14, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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It is hard to avoid the impression that the parliamentarians of the 19th Knesset have engaged in a ferocious competition for chauvinism and anti-liberalism.

Members of the coalition have initiated most of the recent anti-liberal laws with Likud’s Ze'ev Elkin and Yariv Levin closely cooperating with Yisrael Beitenu’s David Rotem, backed by Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman in an attempt to take over the judicial system.  But Kadima, the largest opposition party, is now participating in this festival of chauvinism as well.

Tzipi Livni, has been fighting the flood of anti-liberal laws vocally. But obviously her values are not shared by all of her MKs. Some of them belong to the ideological right, like Otniel Schneller; others, like Dichter, seem to be afraid that if they don’t join the race for patriotic credentials, they will lose electoral popularity.

Dichter has proposed a Basic Law that would define Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People. Veteran political scientist and former head of the foreign ministry Shlomo Avineri has strongly criticized this law. Among others he has pointed out that Paragraph 7 of the proposed law is basically empty, as it has no concrete content. It states: “The state will act to strengthen the bond between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora”.

This law will lead to the precise of opposite of its intentions. Not only will passing this law not do anything to strengthen the bond between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora; it is likely to further alienate most Diaspora Jews, who already feel that the present government has pushed Israel beyond the brink of what is acceptable for them.

Of course there is a vocal minority of right wing, mostly Orthodox Diaspora Jews who are fired up by the current coalition’s chauvinism. Some of them have gone as far as to criticize Netanyahu for the Shalit deal that, in their words, has “brought shame upon Israel and the whole Jewish Nation”. They are likely to applaud Dichter’s law as well as other attempts to shut down Israel’s opposition, human rights organizations and infringe on Freedom of the Press. But while this group is grabbing many headlines, it represents a minority of Diaspora Jewry.

Of course Israel is a sovereign state. Its citizens can elect whoever they feel fit to lead the country, even if this leadership drives Israel into unprecedented isolation. But lawmakers like Dichter who believe that they know how to strengthen the ties with Diaspora Jews betray a profound lack of understanding – not only of international affairs but also of today’s Jewry.

In the summer of 2010, Peter Beinart, a leading American Jewish journalist of the younger generation generated heated discussion. He forcefully criticized the American Jewish establishment for creating the norm that to be a friend of Israel meant to support any policy of any Israeli government, even if these policies profoundly contradict liberal democratic values. This, Beinart argued, has led the majority of young Jews to disconnect emotionally from Israel; they no longer feel that the country is central to their identity, and they refuse to defend those of Israel’s actions that contradict their core values.

The majority of Diaspora Jews have very strong convictions. They profoundly identify with the Universalist value system that has emerged during the European enlightenment and that gradually liberated Jews from the shackles of discrimination and ghettoization – most strongly, of course, in the U.S.

For them the major lesson from the tragedies of Jewish history is that human rights must be respected anytime and anywhere. This is why Jews were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and why vocal liberal Jews in Europe like Bernard-Henri Levy support humanitarian causes anywhere, whether in Bosnia, Kosovo or Libya.

For these Universalist Jews, Dichter’s law is an affront and heartbreak. While Jews like Bernard-Henri Levy and Beinart have vocally defended Israel’s right to defend itself, they are keenly aware of the fact that the founding of Israel created a tragedy for the Palestinian people. They believe that this tragedy needs to be acknowledged, even though it cannot be undone or fully redressed. But to infringe on the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens by denying their special minority status is utterly unacceptable for them.

In this former Defense Minister Moshe Arens (Likud) joins them for the in an article entitled ‘Israel’s Shameful Attack on Arabic must be Stopped’.

Arens is a staunch revisionist and represents Jabotinsky’s and Begin’s heritage. While Arens is a hawk on security, human and civic rights are sacrosanct for him. Left-leaning liberals may disagree with him on policy issues, but feel strong affinity to his uncompromising defense of the civic rights of Arabs and with his strong condemnation of Dichter’s proposal to deny Arabic the status of one of Israel’s official languages. Even Arens is at this point shocked by the anti-liberal gusto of the current coalition.

This Knesset is gradually creating a rift within world Jewry. In my travels, I meet many Jews who have been active for Israel, sometimes for decades. They anxiously try to understand what on earth is happening to the country that they have loved and supported for a lifetime. They don’t understand why the governing coalition is making it ever more difficult for them to feel close to the country.

To them, unfortunately, I can only say, that their feelings are shared by Israel’s liberal middle class that carries the country’s economic burden while feeling that the country that they support and serve gradually ceases to be a home for them.