The responses to the new Jewish nation-state bill that was approved by the cabinet on Sunday and passed its first Knesset reading on Wednesday were predictable. The Israeli left, represented by Meretz, the Joint List and the editorial page of this newspaper, were united in reviling the law. (The centrists of the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid made do with meekly voting against it.)
There are more than enough good reasons to oppose a badly-written and ill-conceived law which seeks to cement the second-class status of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. But while the right wing in the Netanyahu era never misses an opportunity to chip away at the fragile and overburdened foundations of Israeli democracy, it is equally true that the left misses nearly every chance to seriously challenge the national consensus being forced unilaterally upon Israelis.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said this week that the final draft of the bill “will make the presence of Jewish values felt as a tool for judges.” This would supplant the current situation in the court system, which she claims “gives more weight to democratic values over Jewish values.”
In other words, as part of her mission to erode the independence of Israel’s liberal-minded judiciary, Shaked is trying to introduce new guidelines which will enable like-minded judges to ignore the 1992 Human Dignity and Freedom Basic Law and base their rulings on “Jewish values” instead. This section of the law isn’t in the current draft (though it was in a previous one) and may not make it into the final version if it even completes the legislative process, which is doubtful. However, rather than blast Shaked for the meta sin of trying to subvert Israeli justice, why not call her out specifically on these values?
Ayelet Shaked is a wily politician who was sworn in as justice minister before the age of 40, less than three years after entering politics, but a deep understanding of “Jewish values” is not her forte.
In a 19-page manifesto entitled “Tracks to Governance” that she published last October, Shaked outlined the ideological background for her desire to bring about a broad change in the Israeli justice system. The tract contains exactly one biblical quote and zero explanation of what she means when she talks about “Jewish values.” She quotes Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Milton Friedman and Alexis de Tocqueville, but doesn’t include any interpretation of what it would actually mean to integrate Jewish values in the daily deliberations of Israel’s courts. Since it’s safe to assume that the secular justice minister isn’t proposing that we replace Israeli civil law with halakha, the only possible conclusion is this: When she says judges should base their rulings on “Jewish values,” she means her own personal understanding of Jewish values, as narrow and uninformed as that may be.
While the minister’s lack of erudition – both in legal matters and Judaism – is lamentable, she has opened up a fascinating opportunity, one which liberal Israelis should quickly act upon, before wiser heads on the right shut it down.
Since independence, the Israeli establishment has ceded any attempt to define “Jewish values” to the rabbis. The monopoly on Jewishness awarded to the most reactionary streams of orthodoxy has become so axiomatic in Israeli life that when a young secular woman stands up and demands that “Jewish values” should be at the core of our legal system, we automatically assume that these can only mean the values of the religious right, the settlers and the Haredim. Granted, this is probably what Shaked means, but there is no reason for us not to take her demand at face value and conjure up our own version of what Jewish values in the Jewish state should look like.
Jewish values in secular courts don’t necessarily have to mean, for example, that a judge rules in favor of a Jewish community in a land dispute with its Arab neighbors. There are ample Jewish sources protecting minority rights in the land of Israel that go way beyond the level of protection currently afforded them by Israeli courts. If Shaked has her way, a secular or even religious Israeli judge could actually use them.
Women cannot be appointed rabbinic judges in state-financed religious courts but under Shaked’s nation-state bill, we could finally see women ruling on Jewish issues. If regular courts have to conform to Jewish values, then they could rule on entire fields of law – marriage, divorce and conversion – that are currently the prerogative of the ultra-Orthodox men presiding on religious courts.
If Jewish values are to become legally binding in Israeli courts, then the path to defending them will be open to all streams of Judaism – Reform and Conservative, secular, Zionist and non-Zionist. The rabbis quite rightly said, “There are seventy faces to the Torah.” Some of these are downright fascist and ethnocentric, but the fact that the Haredim and the settlers prefer to choose some of the Torah’s most ugly faces to serve their purpose doesn’t mean we all have to go along with their choices.
Shaked is too ignorant of doctrinaire to understand the opportunity her law would create, but sadly, so are her opponents. Instead of calling her bluff, asking her what she actually means when she refers to “Jewish values” and challenging her with an alternative set, Shaked’s detractors can be relied upon to share her unimaginative attitude to Judaism.
Israel’s founding fathers were secular, but they had grown up in religious homes as children and they were self-confident enough not to need any rabbi or ethno-nationalist telling them what Jewish values were or what it meant to be a Jew. A return to Israel’s founding ideals will only be possible when those who believe in the original intentions of the Zionism that built the Jewish state are capable of reclaiming that Zionism’s Jewish values as well.
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