Progressive Jews Blast New Nation-state Law as 'Danger to Israel's Future'

A new law, which has near-constitutional status, enshrines 'the realization of the right to national self-determination' as being 'unique to the Jewish people'

Arab lawmakers tear up copies of the nation-state law in the Knesset, July 19, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Progressive Jewish groups have vehemently condemned Israel's new nation-state law, saying it endangers Israel's future as a democratic state. 

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.

The law, which has a constitution-like status, officially defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that "the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people." It passed with 62 lawmakers voting in favor and 55 against, with two obstaining. 

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J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami harshly criticized the law, saying that the legislation being led by Netanyahu's government "was born in sin."

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"Its only purpose is to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens," said Ben-Ami. "Two months ago we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, where it was written that the State of Israel 'will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender.' Today Netanyahu's government is trying to ignore those words and the values that they represent."

The nation-state law also includes clauses stating that a "united Jerusalem" is the capital of Israel and that Hebrew is the country's official language. Another says that "the state sees the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.

"This is tribalism at its worst," the New Israel Fund said in a statement. "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 has betrayed those values."

"It is a slap in the face to Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel," the statement continued. "Legislation that identifies first- and second-class citizens has no place in a democracy. This law is a danger to Israel's future."

Israel's nation-state law

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, also spoke out, saying that "this is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. 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 law passed after a long and stormy debate that began in yesterday the afternoon, with lawmakers voting on hundreds of clauses presented by the opposition that objected to different parts of the bill. 

One of those clauses originally read: “The state will work to preserve the special connection between [Israel] and the Jewish people everywhere.” Following pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties last week, that wording was then changed to read: “The state will work in the Diaspora to preserve the special connection between [Israel] and the Jewish people.”

The government’s agreement to changing the clause by removing “everywhere” and specifying “Diaspora” is viewed as an effort to ensure that the bill cannot be interpreted as ensuring Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. This could potentially affect High Court of Justice rulings on hot-button Israel-Diaspora issues like conversion, marriage and prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.

“The language is patronizing and makes clear that Israel is responsible for the unity of the Jewish people in the Diaspora only,” Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told Haaretz ahead of the vote. “We are disappointed that the change [by the ultra-Orthodox parties] was accepted and would make it into the final bill.

“We feel this way not only because it will have a negative effect on Diaspora Jewry, but because it will have a negative effect on Israel,” Silverman added.

The European Union meanwhile said it was concerned about the law. "We are concerned, we have expressed this concern and we will continue to engage with Israeli authorities in this context," a spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said at a news briefing. "We've been very clear when it comes to the two-state solution, we believe it is the only way forward and any step that would further complicate or prevent this solution of becoming a reality should be avoided," she said.

Reuters contributed to this report.