newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel’s new nationality law sparks immediate debate from American Jewish groups

“It is astounding that this should be an issue at all,” said Sarah N. Stern, founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth.

The Knesset Plenary Hall during speeches ahead of the vote on the National Law, which will enforce the foundation of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, on July 18, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
The Knesset Plenary Hall during speeches ahead of the vote on the National Law, which will enforce the foundation of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, on July 18, 2018. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.

Israel passed a nation-state law on July 19 that affirmed Israel as the Jewish state, among other principles that have been unofficial since at least 1948. The immediate reaction to it from the American Jewish community has been mixed, but mostly negative.

The National Council of Young Israel hailed the new measure.

“This noteworthy bill codifies what we all know to be fundamental principles and rudimentary facts relative to the deep-seated and longstanding link that the Jewish people and Israel have shared for thousands of years,” the NCYI said in a statement. “Israel is indeed the ‘national home of the Jewish people,’ and anyone attempting to deny that basic premise is turning a blind eye to history and disregarding what is an elemental truth.”

However, the Anti-Defamation League condemned the so-called “Nationality Bill” from the get-go.

In a statement, the ADL said that while the measure “does represent an important step forward to enshrine the Jewish character of the country, notably with regard to state symbols like the anthem, flag and capital Jerusalem,” it nonetheless has “problematic elements that might lead some to question its commitment to pluralism.”

“Israel has a long and commendable record of respect for and protection of the rights of all its citizens, including its ethnic and religious minorities, but provisions in the law could impact these protections,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in the statement. “Additionally, the bill stipulates that only in the Diaspora will the State of Israel act to preserve the bond between the State and the Jewish people, potentially undermining existing Israeli government commitments to religious pluralism.”

Greenblatt added, “Now that this law has been passed by the Knesset, the State of Israel has an obligation to ensure that, in practice, this Basic Law is not used to discriminate against minorities, particularly its Arab citizens, and that the state maintains its commitment to improve relations between Jews in Israel and those around the world.”

T’ruah, a rabbinic organization that claims to fight for human rights, asserted a more aggressive tone than the ADL following the bill’s passage.

“[It] endangers Israeli democracy, legalizes discrimination against 20 percent of Israeli citizens, threatens religious pluralism and threatens the very future of Israel,” the group said in a statement. “In the days leading up to [the fast of] Tisha B’Av [on July 22], the Israeli government has demonstrated its willingness to destroy the foundations of the State of Israel in pursuit of an anti-democratic and discriminatory agenda.”

Meanwhile, the Zionist Organization of America praised the basic law’s enactment.

“This law enshrines 2,000 years of Jewish prayers and the noble Zionist mission of re-establishing Israel as the Jewish homeland—a haven where Jews can defend themselves from centuries of horrific violent anti-Semitic attacks in European and Arab nations, and live as a free people in their own, indigenous, G-d given [sic] and UN given legally-designated land,” ZOA national president Mort Klein and ZOA director of special projects Elizabeth Berney cheered in a statement. “The law merely reflects the raison d’être of Israel.”

Additionally, Klein and Berney denounced the opposition. “Criticisms of the new law are wrong and misplaced: It is deeply disappointing that, in addition to hypocritical even anti-Semitic European criticism of the new Israeli basic law, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rick Jacobs issued statements misleadingly and wrongly criticizing Israel’s new law, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) wrongly criticized aspects of the new Israeli law,” they said.

“In essence, these critics are attacking the very idea of the Jewish state,” added  Klein and Berney. “Their unfounded criticisms (and not the law) are what is illegitimate and doing damage.”

‘Spinning in their graves?’

Prominent individuals in the Jewish community also weighed in on the controversy.

“Whatever its intent, there is little question that passage of this law has damaged Israel’s reputation in this country and with the American Jewish community,” Democratic strategist Mark Mellman told JNS. “There are already problems between Israel and the U.S., and between Israel and the Diaspora. Going out of the way to exacerbate those problems doesn’t seem like a wise course.”

Author and intellectual Leon Wieseltier expressed opposition, analyzing from a historical viewpoint. “The new Basic Law, outrageous and heartbreaking, proves that Israel is in the vanguard of the xenophobia and the anti-democratic identitarianism that is darkening our world now,” Wieseltier told JNS.

“It is an insult to—and in the matter of Israel’s Arab citizens, a retraction of—the Declaration of Independence, which somehow managed to affirm that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and to establish equality of rights for all its citizens, Jewish and otherwise,” he continued. “The authors of that sublime document are spinning in their graves.”

Sarah N. Stern, the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, disagreed with Wieseltier.

“It is astounding that this should be an issue at all,” she told JNS. “First of all, this law is nothing in the least bit revolutionary. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 calls for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’”

“This reeks of a double standard,” continued Stern. “Most nations in the world have an official state religion. America with our constitutional separation of church and state clause is the exception, not the rule. The state religion is usually determined by the majority belief of the population. Liberal societies also have a named state religion within their constitutions, such as Denmark, which has the ‘Church of Denmark’ as their established state church.”

“Nothing in this law, whatsoever, changes the freedom of worship for Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is or any other group of people,” she added.

“The hoopla surrounding this law, in and of itself, exemplifies why there needs to be a uniquely Jewish element in the state of Israel,” said Stern. “The double standard and anti-Semitism that Jews have always been exposed to is what has necessitated, and still necessitates, the State of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.”

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