‘Racist and Discriminatory’: U.S. Jewish Leaders Warn Israel Against Passage of Nation-state Bill

Some 7,000 demonstrators in Tel Aviv march from Rabin Square to an 'emergency rally' to protest the bill ■ New Israel Fund CEO: 'This is tribalism at its worst'

Protesters in Tel Aviv demonstrating against the nation-state bill, July 14, 2018.
Meged Gozani

American Jewish leaders, alarmed by the prospect of the controversial nation-state Basic Law, have intensified their lobbying efforts, strongly urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reconsider his government’s desire to pass it in the Knesset this week.

Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, was expected to arrive in Israel Sunday to express his organization’s concerns to top Israeli officials.

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In Tel Aviv on Saturday night, meanwhile, some 7,000 demonstrators marched from Rabin Square to an “emergency rally” at the intersection of Dizengoff and Bar Giora streets, where they listened to speeches by politicians and social activists.

The New Israel Fund took part in the rally – organized by a number of Israeli advocacy organizations, as well as groups affiliated with the Meretz, Hadash, Ta’al and Labor parties – to protest what it called a “racist, discriminatory” bill. 

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Also participating in the protest were several Israeli lawmakers: Ayman Odeh, who chairs the predominantly Arab Joint List, slammed the bill as a "law whose purpose is to stick a finger in the eyes of a fifth of Israel's population, spark a dispute and polarize in order to make political gain for the Netanyahu tyranny."

Speaking at the demonstration, Odeh said that "in a government that has lost all shame, that fears its own shadow, the majority tramples the minority, legislation is racist and the democratic space is under constant threat."

MK Tamar Zandberg, who heads Meretz, charged that Netanyahu's government was attempting to push the law through in order to distract Israelis from the dire situation in the Gaza Strip.

"Today, we see what happens when the government doesn't have a solution facing Gaza – all it can offer are racist laws," she said.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, CEO of the Reform Movement in Israel, echoed the criticism, blasting the bill as "contemptible."

"The real score we need to settle is with those elected by the public [Knesset members] who know deep inside how much the nation-state bill is going to tarnish the Israeli law book – and remain silent nonetheless," he said.

New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch is among a growing number of American Jewish leaders issuing strong public statements against the bill, calling it a “danger to Israel’s future.”

“This is tribalism at its worst,” said Sokatch. “Beginning with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Jewish value of human dignity and the principle of the equality of all people have formed the democratic foundation of the state. This law is completely incompatible with those values. It is a slap in the face to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel and provides a legal basis to discriminate based on religion, race and sex.

“If racism, sexism and religious fundamentalism are to be protected in Israel’s Basic Laws, it should be no surprise when the country embodies those values,” he added. “This bill and the government that supported it are a danger to Israel’s future.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, also spoke out, saying that such a law “will make Israel an open target on the world stage for all those who seek to deny the Jewish people our right to a homeland.

“If passed, it will create a dangerous precedent for democracy in Israel,” said Jacobs in a statement. “It is a 180-degree turn from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which enshrines freedom and democracy for all Israelis. This bill would instead upend democratic norms and create an Israel that is unequal. It is a grave threat to Israeli democracy,” Jacobs added.

Jacobs said the bill both “hurts the delicate balance between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, and it enthrones ultra-Orthodox Judaism at the expense of the majority of a pluralistic world Jewry.”

Reform Jewry, he added, was “vehemently opposed” to the bill and vowed to fight it “aggressively.”

A group of 14 American Jewish organizations directed their deep concerns about the bill to incoming Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who still serves as leader of the Opposition in the Knesset.

The organizations said the bill would eliminate “the defining characteristic of a modern democracy” – protecting rights for all. Instead, its letter said, “this bill would remove that democratic basis and give constitutional protection to policies that could discriminate against minorities, including women, Palestinian citizens, racial minorities, LGBT people, non-Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Druze, Christians and others.”

The letter was signed by the New Israel Fund, J Street, T’ruah, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance, Habonim Dror North America, Hashomer Hatzair North America, Keshet, the National Council of Jewish Women, Reconstructing Judaism, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel, and Tivnu: Building Justice.

The Israel Policy Forum “urged” the Netanyahu government to “drop the bill entirely, or, failing that, to at least amend it, excising any discriminatory elements while incorporating elements that reinforce Israel’s democratic character, without delay.”

In May, two groups – the Anti-Defamation League and J Street – had expressed early opposition to the bill when it was approved by a ministerial committee to return to the Knesset floor for consideration.