U.S. Jewish Leader ‘Disappointed’ After Fighting Israeli Government Over Nation-state Bill

Jewish Federations president says draft law's new wording, which undercuts religious pluralism, is ‘short of the expectations we have of Israel, a thriving democracy’

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Jerry  Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.

After a whirlwind 48-hour trip to Israel in which he told Israeli leaders of Diaspora Jewry’s distress over the controversial nation-state bill, Jerry Silverman said he was leaving the country “disappointed.”

Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, told Haaretz Monday that despite last-minute changes to the draft law, he was still deeply concerned over the current version of the legislation, which would legally define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

“The nation-state bill in its current form falls short of the expectations we have of Israel, a thriving democracy,” he said. “We appreciate that members of the Knesset and other leaders were open to listening to our concerns. However, the bill as is is still disappointing.”

The concerns of Diaspora leaders, including Silverman (who heads the umbrella body of community Jewish philanthropies across the United States), are focused on several contentious clauses.

The first of these is a clause that 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 approval to changing the clause by removing “everywhere” and specifying “Diaspora” is viewed as an effort to ensure that the bill, if it passes and becomes a Basic Law, 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,” Silverman said. “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.

Another clause causing concern is the one that originally said the state would allow groups to establish separate communities “on the basis of religion and nationality,” thus enabling the establishment of Jewish-only communities.

Following widespread criticism from many political figures – including President Reuven Rivlin – and legal experts, a compromise on the wording was reached among coalition members. The clause now reads: “The state sees developing Jewish communities as a national value and will act to encourage, promote and establish them.”

But North American Jewish leaders remain unhappy with this new draft. They also believe the very public debate over the original segregated communities clause – which highlighted that key coalition parties endorsed blatant discrimination – damaged Israel’s image internationally.

Another clause Jewish leaders object to would downgrade Arabic from an official language to one having “special status” in Israel. Here, too, Diaspora leaders believe that passage of the bill as it stands would create negative perceptions worldwide of state-sanctioned discrimination against nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

Silverman said he was grateful for “the opportunity to meet with different leaders in the Knesset, ministers and people from the Prime Minister’s Office, expressing our opinion on areas of the bill we found challenging.”

He said he was not able to “directly” meet and speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but spoke with officials in his office.

Asked if he believed North American Jewry opposed the bill in its entirety, Silverman responded, “Israel is a sovereign nation. I’m not going to be critical of the total bill.”

He added, “How can I oppose, for example, a clause stating that ‘Hatikva’ is the national anthem? What I am challenged by are those aspects of the bill that could have indirect consequences for the Diaspora.”

Netanyahu said Monday that the government intends to pass the nation-state bill by Wednesday, when the Knesset closes for its summer recess.