In Jab at Netanyahu's Policies, Top Jewish Organization Reaffirms Commitment to a Democratic Israel

Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency votes unanimously to adopt resolution prompted by passage of nation-state law

Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog and Druze leader Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif flanked by Board of Governors Chairman Michael Siegal and Mark Wilf, the incoming chairman of the board of trustees of JFNA.
Jewish Agency

Signaling its deep discontent with Israel’s new nation-state law, one of the Jewish world's key institutions passed a resolution on Wednesday reaffirming its commitment to “the fundamental principles of the State of Israel as emerging from the Declaration of Independence.”

Meeting in Tel Aviv for their tri-annual gathering, the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency voted unanimously to adopt the resolution, which does not mention the nation-state law by name but was clearly prompted by its passage and the widespread opposition to it in the Jewish world. 

Opponents of the law, which was adopted by the Knesset in July, argue that it downplays Israel’s democratic character and poses a potential threat to the status of non-Jewish minorities in the country. The law also downgrades the status of Arabic from an official language in Israel. 

The Declaration of Independence, by contrast, stipulates that the State of Israel “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or gender.”

In its explanatory notes, the resolution stipulates that on Israel’s 70th anniversary, the Jewish Agency wishes to reaffirm its commitment to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, “as detailed in the proposed resolution, as an expression of solidarity with the State of Israel and recognition of the unique, democratic and egalitarian characteristics of the State of Israel.” It points out that the Israeli Supreme Court has noted “on more than one occasion” that its principles “characterize and determine the character of the state as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The Jewish Agency resolution was adopted at the first meeting of the board of governors to take place since Isaac Herzog assumed his position as chairman in August, replacing Natan Sharansky. The Board of Governors has 120 members, among them representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, leaders of the various Jewish religious movements, representatives of the World Zionist Organization, Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) and various Zionist organizations around the world. 

In a statement, the Jewish Agency said that Herzog decided to draft the resolution – which is declarative in nature rather than binding – in response to requests from several members of the Board of Governors, including Professor Uriel Reichman, an Israeli legal scholar and founder and president of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

In passing this resolution, the Jewish Agency appears to have embraced the position of Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who said in a recent interview with Haaretz that she plans to turn the upcoming national election into a referendum on the Declaration of Independence. Speaking Tuesday night with delegates attending the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Livni – who replaced Herzog as opposition leader after he moved over to the Jewish Agency – said that she hoped to turn the Declaration of Independence into Israel’s constitution.

Livni welcomed the Board of Governors’ resolution. “The Jewish nation has once again deemed the Declaration of Independence the basis of our values,” she said. “Now it is time for the Knesset."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had referred to the passage of the law as “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel.” Addressing the closing session of the GA on Wednesday morning, he defended the law, saying that much of the criticism of it was based on “misinformation.”

When the moderator of the session asked the prime minister about the widespread opposition to the law in the Jewish world, his question was greeted with a loud round of applause. 

The law has come under fire from mainstream Jewish organizations, among them the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conservative and Reform movements. 

In Israel, it has sparked an especially sharp backlash in the Druze community, whose members serve in the army. In an unusual gesture, Herzog invited Sheikh Muwafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of the community in Israel, to attend the Board of Governors' meeting. 

“These days, members of our community feel deep pain because of the nation-state law, which defines the state we are loyal to, but does not mention one word about the Druze and their contributions,” he told the Board of Governors. “This law has turned our community overnight into second-class citizens.