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columnU.S.-Israel Relations

What’s the matter with a Jewish state?

Why the Knesset’s efforts to define the Jewish state should be influenced by Diaspora objections.

Israeli founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declares independence beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, at the Tel Aviv Museum, today Independence Hall, on May 14, 1948. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Israeli founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion declares independence beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism, at the Tel Aviv Museum, today Independence Hall, on May 14, 1948. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The primary reaction from most people to the news that the Knesset may soon pass a bill defining Israel as a “Jewish state” is likely to be incredulity. Since just about everything about its government and institutions already reinforce the nation’s purpose as the national home of the Jewish people, such legislation seems superfluous. But many Israelis seem to think that pointing out the obvious about their country isn’t enough.

David Ben-Gurion declaring independence beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

No matter what they think about the idea, most Israelis probably agree that the last people who should have something to say about the question are Diaspora Jews. They’re sick and tired of American kibitzers judging them, and for the most part feel that their Diaspora cousins either ignore the realities of the conflict with the Palestinians or view Israeli actions through a distorted critical lens. Moreover, given the enormous demographic problems facing American Jewry, a lot of Israelis think they should get their own house in order before giving them more unsolicited advice.

Yet as they struggle with the nature of their state, Israelis who are concerned about their Jewishness can’t be oblivious to the fact that such efforts are widening the gap between two communities that still need each other.

These are grim times for those who care about promoting Jewish unity.

Cultural, religious and demographic issues that have been festering for decades already presented obstacles to mutual understanding. But now that chasm is being exacerbated by politics since Americans and Israelis remain deeply divided on two major issues of the day: U.S. President Donald Trump and the Middle East peace process. Israelis like Trump almost as much as American Jews despise him. American Jews seem to think the lack of peace is due to the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a view that is shared only by a small minority of Israeli voters.

As an important essay published this month by Mosaic magazine points out, these stark divisions should spur even greater efforts to being Americans and Israelis together. The piece, co-authored by outgoing Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Natan Sharansky and scholar Gil Troy, argues that a focus on a shared future is still possible. While the article detail the factors driving these divisions, the pair thinks the still potent commonalities between Americans and Israelis dictate not only further efforts, but also a path forward involving more communication and consultation.

It’s a worthwhile read and also contains a proposal for a Jewish People’s Council that would seek to give both sides of the divide a forum to air their differences and influence one another. The council is a laudable idea, even if it’s extremely unlikely that it will ever become a reality. Nevertheless, the controversy over the Jewish-state legislation illustrates exactly why more of us should be thinking about how Americans and Israelis are drifting apart and what we can do about it.

The impetus for the legislation stems from, as Netanyahu has explained, a need to keep a balance between Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state. Members of his coalition believe that a new basic law (such laws form the outline of a constitution for Israel) is needed to ensure that its government incorporate the country’s Jewish national and religious character into its laws. But the problem is how to do that without undermining democracy or infringing on the rights of non-Jewish minorities.

Most of the Jewish state law isn’t controversial. There is an overwhelming consensus in favor of recognizing the Hebrew language, the Jewish calendar and holidays into a basic law. The same applies to the nature of the state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims “the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel” that would serve as a place for the “ingathering” of Jews from throughout the world, while still protecting the freedom and rights of all people who lived there.

Maintaining the balance between Jewish and democratic hasn’t been easy, especially since Israel has been under attack from those who seek its destruction since the day the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, read that declaration. If many members of Netanyahu’s coalition feel the law is necessary, it is because they believe that some of their opponents on the left have sought to undermine its Jewish nature. But they have hurt their case by appending an amendment to the bill that would allow the establishment of communities where residency could be restricted based on religion or nationality, and downgrading the status of the Arabic language, which is spoken and used on signage throughout the country. While the obvious implication of such wording would be the exclusion of Arabs, it could also potentially create a legal way to discount anyone who didn’t fit into a particular lifestyle or religious worldview, whether Jews, Muslims or Christians.

Both Sharansky and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin have pointed out that the Knesset will be handing ammunition to the country’s enemies if the law passes in its current form. They’re right. Just as important is that it will alienate Diaspora Jews, who will see it as an offensive act of discrimination and undermining Jewish values.

What’s most discouraging about this debate is that some Israeli politicians seem so indifferent to the impact of their actions—not only on the effort to defend the Jewish state, but also on efforts to foster Jewish unity. The same is often true of American Jews who spout out off about the conflict with the Palestinians in ways that convince many Israelis that they neither understand nor care about their security.

The consequences of Americans and Israelis continuing to ignore the growing rift between them (and actions that widen it) are incalculable. It’s time for Israelis to remember that if they want a Jewish state, then it must take into account the needs of all Jewish people, and for Diaspora Jews to engage with Israelis rather than just moralize at them. That’s why ideas like those put forward by Sharansky and Troy need to be heeded. It’s vital that talk about Jewish unity and how to promote it stop being the preserve of scholars and start becoming a priority for our leaders on both side of the divide.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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