Reform Leader Jacobs: Israel Needs to Reaffirm Democracy, Not Jewish Character

The president of America's largest Jewish community says PM Netanyahu's proposed 'Jewish state' law 'signals the wrong shift.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Jews and Arabs on a train in East Jerusalem.
Jews and Arabs on a train in East Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

President of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs opposes the proposed legislation on Israel as a Jewish state, labeling it as “unwise” and “signaling the wrong shift." Jacobs believes that Israel’s Jewish character is not in doubt but there is an urgent need to reaffirm the state’s commitment to democratic values and institutions.

“It seems to me at this particular moment that we need to be strengthening the democratic side of the ‘Jewish and democratic state,’” Jacobs told Haaretz. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in the world about Israel’s Jewish character and its unique purpose and mission, but there is a need to strengthen its democratic character, especially for Israeli Arabs.”

In an obvious dig at Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who said at a Washington conference last week “if Israel wouldn’t be a democracy – so what?” Jacobs added: “The democratic character may be questioned by Jewish philanthropists in the United States but Israel does not have a choice but to be both Jewish and democratic. Let’s celebrate the democratic part, especially now.”

Jacobs was reacting to reports about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s intention to overrule Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and to press ahead with cabinet approval for the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People. According to the current formulation of the law proposed by the Likud’s Zeev Elkin, Israel would be defined as an inherently Jewish state that has “a democratic regime.” Elkin’s law would also relegate the status of Arabic from being one of two “official” languages to a language with "special standing."

"Anything that is perceived to be a demotion of Arabic language or culture is to signal the wrong shift at this point. I do not think this is a wise move, when we should be doing more to quell some of the unrest and some of the divisiveness and even the violence and If I have to say so even the racism that has been coursing through recent events in a number of different settings," Jacobs said.

Rabbi Rick JacobsCredit: Ian Spanier

Other Jewish leaders have adopted a wait-and-see attitude concerning the proposed legislation. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League told Haaretz that there is “no doubt in the world that we support legislation that would strengthen Israel’s Jewish and democratic character,” but he declined to comment on specific formulations currently being considered. Foxman preferred to cite Netanyahu’s pledge to weigh revisions to the law and stressed that Knesset members must be given freedom to “vote their consciences on this matter.”

But Jacob's take on the situation was fundamentally different. He dismissed claims made by some of the law’s supporters, including Netanyahu, that Israel’s Jewish identity is being challenged. “I believe deeply in the Jewish part of the ‘Jewish and democratic state’ and how important that is to love and admire and commit to the Jewish state, so I’m in no way of saying that the Jewish part is not critically important. But I’m a leader of the North American reform Jewish community and I don’t see that Israel’s Jewish core is being questioned now. But some recent events have raised questions about how much Israel is devoted to the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions: these are the hallmarks of Israel and some of the reasons front why we love and are proud of Israel.“

Asked about the reaction of Diaspora Jewry to the proposed changes, Jacobs said: “We know the difference of living in a democratic country and people here would be quite distressed if anything was done to weaken or to suggest that that commitment to democracy was weakening.” He said that while Diaspora Jews may not have a direct say in Israeli government decisions, Israel’s democracy was a main selling point in defending Israel against its critics. “For those of us who stand up every day to defend the state of Israel with every ounce of our strengths – having a Jewish and democratic state that respects minority rights and promotes its Arab citizens is a much more compelling argument to be made, whether it's on a college campus or against supporters of BDS, especially now.”

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