ARZENU’s Response to the Bill on Basic Law: Israel – Nation-State of the Jewish People

Honorable Ministers,

  1. In the name of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), and based on the opinion of our partners overseas, we turn to you regarding the above-mentioned matter with grave concern. As you know, a legislative move to set a basic law relating to the identity of the State of Israel reached its height with the government approval of two private laws – MK Elkin’s law P/19/2502 and the proposal by MKs Shaked, Levin and Eiltov, P/19/1550. According to media reports, the government decision states that following their approval in a preliminary reading, these bills will be aligned with a bill presented by the Prime Minister, based on the principles document which was published on his behalf.
  2. The principles document was presented as a softened version compared with the private bills, and it indeed preserved the legal phrase: “a Jewish and democratic state” and avoids a distinction between the status of the Hebrew language and that of the Arabic language. However, a deeper reading of the document reveals great similarities between it and the two private bills and lacking answers to many of the flaws presented in these two bills.
  3. Below you will find the problems we see in the principles document. These problems are detailed at length in the attached position paper.
  4. We believe that it would have been more appropriate to all together avoid a nation-state legislation in its current format (as presented in the opinion by Prof. Ruth Gavison). It is definitely appropriate to avoid legislation as that presented to the government at this time. In any case, only a deep legislative process, based upon a broad parliamentary and public debate, and which aspires to create a cross-party front (as was done when legislating the basic laws in 1992) can lead to the formalization of an appropriate basic law regarding the identity of the State of Israel. This is especially true during this time, characterized by increased tension between the Jewish and Arab public and within various sectors of the Jewish public.
  5. The main flaw we identify in the principles document is the violation of the critical balance between Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Alongside the justified recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, where we fulfill our right to national self-determination, the principles document only mentions the fact that Israel is a democratic state without mentioning that this obligates the State to be based on values of human dignity, equality to all its citizens regardless of religion, race, national origin, language and gender and that it respects human rights. The lack of these basic principles is especially evident considering the detailed list that does appear regarding principles and expressions of the Jewish identity of the State. In this state of affairs, one cannot be satisfied with a general and unclear definition regarding Israel’s democratic character.
  6. The principles document gives an unprecedented status to Jewish law (Halacha) in its Orthodox interpretation as a source of general inspiration to the actions of the legislative branch. The mere presentation of a religious legislative system as a source of inspiration to the Knesset’s democratic decisions is inherently wrong. This is especially so considering that Israeli legislation has no other sources of inspiration, not even a mention of the declaration of independence. In the future, this section could have a real effect on legislative processes and the alignment of Knesset laws with the test of legal judgment. It is enough to contemplate the impact of such a definition on legislative processes regarding “who is a Jew” in order to understand the repercussions. A further expression of this matter is the provision of a legal status to one set of components of public education in Israel – exposure of students to Jewish history, legacy and tradition, without giving other vital components of public education (civics and democracy, for example) a similar status.
  7. The principles document completely ignores the collective rights of the Arab and Druze citizens of the country. The document only mentioned the individual rights of citizens, including preservation of their culture and identity, but does not mandate the state to actively work to maintain the heritage of these minority groups. It is precisely in a law which emphasizes the right of the Jewish people for self-determination that it is completely appropriate to also give attention to the existence of ethnic-national-religious communities with a natural affinity to the land.
  8. The principles document ignores the need to advance values of tolerance, co-existence and social solidarity between all citizens, and especially in the public sphere and through national symbols. The legal anchoring of the “HaTikvah” national anthem, the blue and white flag and the Menorah emblem, as well as Independence Day and memorial days is appropriate and necessary. However, a legislative move which seeks to emphasize values of shared citizenship would explicitly keep, for instance, the right of the legislator to add national symbols and holidays which are meant to express the common denominators between all citizens of the country. Additionally, it would have been possible to express these values and objectives in the purpose sections and basic principles of the legislation.
  9. All the mentioned-above flaws place a question-mark on the existence of a substantial difference between the principles document and the original bills and sharpen the potential damage from advancing such a law. As a Zionist movement, we believe that the principle of a national homeland for the Jewish people is worthy of clear legislative anchoring, which will fortify the status of a Jewish national homeland in Israeli society and around the world. However, this must all be done as part of an all-encompassing move which emphasizes Israel’s democratic character as well as its Jewish one, and it commitment to all its citizens, including their culture and individual and collective rights. A partial action, which ignores additional basic principles of Israel’s identity and the values on which it was founded, will gravely hurt Israeli society’s cohesion and will cause serious damage to the State’s image and to its centrality as a source of inspiration and pride for world Jewry.

Sincerely,

Anat Hoffman, Head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC)

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Adv., IMPJ Executive Director

Rabbi Prof. Yehoyada Amir, Chair, MARAM – Israel Reform Rabbinic Council

 

Click here for the Principles Document

Click here for the Position Paper

Nation-state bill update from ARZENU

Today, following a long session of deliberations, the Israeli government approved its basic support for the two “nation-state” bills dealing with Israel’s Jewish character. The bills were approved based on a commitment that following a first reading (out of four readings which take place) the bills will not be advanced in their current form, and instead, the government will advance the version presented by Prime Minister Netanyahu, based on the document of principles publicized in recent days.

Over the past few months, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) voiced its clear and unequivocal reservations from the private bills. These subject Israel’s democratic character to its Jewish character and change basic legal decisions regarding the relationship between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, such as making Hebrew the only official language of the State.

Even though the Prime Minister’s document of principles softens the private bills by securing the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and not mentioning the status of languages, the document still contains fundamental problems which justify blocking the move to approve the bill. Among the main problems with the document are that the unique national elements of the Arab and Druze citizens of the country and their collective rights are not mentioned; the lack of the equality principle as a basic value according to the Israeli legal system; that the commonalities between all Israeli citizens, Jews, Arab and Druze are not mentioned either; and finally, giving Jewish law (Halacha) a legal status as an inspirational platform to the Knesset’s actions.

It is important to note that many senior Israeli lawyers and lawmakers, including the government legal advisor and those who receive much public trust from all sides of the political spectrum expressed their objection to the bills. In the coming days, the IMPJ will work with government and different party officials in the Knesset, and together with many other partners to block this law.

We believe that Israel’s Jewish character and its being the national homeland of the Jewish people are fundamental constitutional principles that are worthy of protection and expression in Israeli law. These principles are clearly stated in Israel’s declaration of independence, in the Knesset fundamental laws, and in a long list of other laws, such as the law of return. This new legal step will not strengthen these principles, but rather is destined to weaken them, all while increasing the tension within Israeli society. We believe in the need to advance an Israeli constitution in an overarching and comprehensive move which will express all aspects of Israeli identity in a balanced and responsible way. Only this type of move, which defines the State of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, as the democratic state of all its citizens and as a state which accepts all its minorities, can we strengthen the Zionist enterprise and its fulfillment in the State of Israel.

Below is the IMPJ’s official press statement following this morning’s deliberations in the Israeli government:

 “The ‘nation-state’ bills approved today in the Israeli government place a real stain on the State of Israel and provides unnecessary and damaging ammunition to all those wishing to question the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise. The fact that the bills will not be advanced and instead be replaced with a version presented by the Prime Minister does not change the fact that the unnecessary damage has already been done. During days of increased tension between the Jewish and Arab Israeli public, one cannot protest and object racism on the one hand, and advance legal processes which are seen as exclusionary, on the other. We can only regret that the Prime Minister did not listen to the government legal advisor’s and senior lawyers’ advice to postpone the entire process; we hope that he will step away from his initial intension. It is only appropriate that any legislative move dealing with Israel’s fundamental principles include all aspects of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state which acknowledges the existence of minority groups and the centrality of the principle of equality” (Rabbi Gilad Kariv, IMPJ executive director).

ARZA Strongly Condems Terrorist Attack in Jerusalem

ARZA expresses its deepest condolences to the families of those who perished at the hands of terrorists today. An attack on innocents, and especially against innocent people at prayer in a house of worship can only be viewed as a purposeful act of violence with the intention of causing pain and death.  All  those who care about humanity and all who care about the integrity of all beings should decry such behavior and see it exactly for what it is — intentional and brutal murder.

We join with all who care about decency and who are pursuers of peace. We join with all Israel in our deep sense of sadness and mourning, and we hope and pray that all those of good will shall raise their voices high and drown out the forces of violence and terror.

Read more at Haaretz.

I am a Liberal Zionist and this is NOT the End.

A recent NYT op-ed by Anthony Lerman left me both puzzled and insulted. As a liberal Zionist, I am not at a crossroads, as Lerman directly accused in his sweeping and generalizing editorial, “The End of Liberal Zionism,” wherein he has unfairly categorized many of us in a camp to which we do not belong.

I would like to offer a different picture than that of Lerman’s portrayal of liberal Diaspora Jews getting fed up with Israel’s conduct. On the contrary, this summer’s war has been a wake-up call for many liberal Zionists. So many have come to the realization that now, more than ever, is the time to be involved. Liberal Zionists realize that they have the opportunity and ability to help foster Israel’s Zionist core, which dates back to its “romantic” foundation. Our own Reform movement has worked to provide critical support for a variety of projects since the beginning of the current escalation of violence and rioting this summer. This support has led to the enhancement of co-existence projects between Jewish communities and their Palestinian-Israeli neighbors, and more.

As a liberal Zionist, I take pride in the fact that we openly express sympathy for the loss of Palestinian life in Gaza, question the necessity of ground incursions and targeted strikes, and actively support Israel’s ongoing – but lesser known – humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Further, I take pride in the notion that we do not turn our back on Israel, even though we may be at times critical. We do not view our connection to or support for the Jewish State as conditional, and we recognize that as Diaspora Jews we do have the luxury to choose how to support Israel. Israelis, however, do not have the luxury to ignore constant attacks on their fellow citizens, and Lerman, in his accusation of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to establish an independent Palestinian state, fails to see that there are, in fact, other parties involved. Does being a liberal mean that the Palestinians must be absolved of all culpability for determining their own destiny? Even if Israel has the upper hand, which it clearly does militarily, should the international community give Hamas a carte blanche?

Furthermore, why does Lerman accuse liberal Zionists of being torn during times of war? The liberals that are my friends and colleagues have become more united in affirming Israel’s right to defend herself while staunchly believing in the need for a negotiated two-state arrangement. Let us remember how many reservists heeded their summons and went in to fight despite their own political opinions.

Also, to which rising trend in Israeli politics is Lerman referring? To the trend that turned out in Rabin Square last Saturday night? To the thoughtful discussion between famed left-wing laureate David Grossman and modern Orthodox Rabbi Yuval Cherlow? There has always been vitriol and intolerance from certain Israeli politicians. We are a people who take words seriously and cannot ignore threats or blatant illegal racism. Today, sadly, the examples of these are plentiful. Is this a trend worse than ’95-’96, where the Oslo process passed by a 51% majority?

Liberal Zionism does not lack agency. It is working hard to help its educators, rabbis, youth advisors and affiliates find a voice in the storm. It is mobilizing its constituency to support Israel, as Zionists and as liberals, and to deplore dangerous and demagogic voices coming from the right to far-right. While Lerman does not supply us with the vast research conducted and on whose behalf he writes, I can say personally that being a Zionist means to work to improve Israeli society and hold Israel up to high standards, in addition to wanting Israel to reflect our values. Most importantly, being a Zionist means that Israel is our family with whom we will always be connected, despite how each of us might chose to act were we in the Prime Minister’s chair. As a liberal Zionist I would encourage the government to look towards important diplomatic steps to end the current war – which would result in more than just another abbreviated ceasefire. We must look to the international community (including the Arab states) to help ensure that Hamas will stop firing rockets and mortars so that we can open the strip and aid in the rebuilding of Gaza.

Lerman does, however, make an important point with which I agree wholeheartedly – that now is the time to embrace the challenge of reclaiming Zionism and working to change Israel’s perceived image from its grassroots. Many years ago, I, like Lerman, fell in love with the romantic Zionist ideal. Now, as an adult, I am well aware that Israel is not perfect and has made its fair share of mistakes. I also know that Israel has had to deal with more strife, threat and unfair judgment than most, and that today’s Zionism of consequence must be an enlightened and thoughtful Zionism that admonishes racist and intolerant rhetoric while being cautious regarding those who wish to cause us harm. We liberal Zionists, therefore, continue to pray for peace and work to do what we can to improve the lives of those affected by the throes of war.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and a Res. Lt. in the IDF Spokespersons unit.

Join Us For a Webinar on August 24 – Making Sense of the Middle East

Behind the Headlines: Making Sense of the Middle East

Recent events in the Middle East have once again thrust this volatile region onto the world’s headlines.  The speed in which new developments occur in this troubled part of the world can often times confuse even the most educated person.

Currently, the Arab world is deeply divided between radicals and “moderates.” There are also growing tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. Israel’s role in this dangerous neighborhood is consequently changing, presently allying itself with moderate Sunnis against the Islamic fundamentalists.

However in the Middle East, the concept of allies can be best defined as “who one hates least”.

The Gaza War has unmasked the face of that most ancient of hatreds, anti-Semitism. It seems that regardless of Israel’s behavior certain Europeans blame the country. Yet, the atrocities being perpetrated in nearby Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East are consistently and disconcertingly ignored.

This webinar will consider the challenges facing the Middle East, Israel and global Jewry.

This webinar, hosted jointly by ARZENU and the World Union, will be led by our guest presenter Prof. Paul Liptz, a social historian who lectured for 35 years in the Tel Aviv University Department of Middle Eastern and African History. Liptz has taught IDF Reservists as well as Israel Studies at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. He has published many articles on contemporary Jewry and Jewish history, as well as having lectured and conducted workshops in 12 countries. Currently, Professor Liptz is the Education Director of the World Union’s Anita Saltz International Education Center.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar. By registering, you will be able to view the webinar even if you are not able to join during the live session. After the event, you will be sent a link to the entire webinar.

  • Title: Making Sense of the Middle East with Professor Paul Liptz
  • Date: Sunday, August 24, 2014
  • Time: 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM IDT 

Space is limited.
Reserve your Webinar seat now at:
https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/566833503

In Response to a Colleague’s Question

Dear…….,

You raise so many very important questions. We Jews are described as being captives of hope, but sometimes that hope is very difficult to find. I can’t respond to you in any formal or official fashion. I am not a social scientist, I am not a talking head or a political columnist. I am just a Jew, a liberal Jew, a political activist, someone who cares passionately not only about Israel’s survival but about the quality of the Israel that will survive.

My biggest source of hope is in the area now being called “the day after.” The cease-fire is in effect, negotiations are beginning in Cairo, and there is little to no likelihood that the situation will return to the status quote ante. The +80% support for Bibi’s handling of the war will now begin to erode in the aftermath of that war. That is only natural. The right wing will demand answers as to why Bibi did not complete the process of totally annihilating Hamas. The left wing will resume its criticism that much of what led to the current war could have been avoided if there had been a cessation of the building of settlements and a willingness on the part of the government to treat Abbas as a real negotiating partner.

Rivlin’s role in all of this will be absolutely unimportant. Peres still has far greater impact on the Israeli political scene and on the international political scene than Israel’s new president.

Bibi will be confronting an increasingly fractured coalition. He knows that from Bennett to Danon to Lieberman, the challenges to his leadership will be rapidly increasing. Bibi is an historian, and he certainly realizes that he has a long way to go to guarantee his own positive slot in the history of the Jewish people.

Will the prime minister use the opportunity to shake up his coalition, to bring Labor into the government and thus strengthen the power of the Center?

The answers are not written in stone, and therein lies my hope. Those of us living in North America have to do more then worry and kvetch and criticize. We have to be involved in creating coalitions of strength and of influence that can mobilize the power of the North American Jewish community to influence the shaping of political realities in Israel. We have to be willing to express our profound concern over the building of settlements and the lack of engagement with Abbas and his government. We have to be willing to express our profound concern over the lack of Jewish religious freedom, of true democratic pluralism, within the Jewish state.

The changes that must come within Israel’s foreign policy must be paralleled by changes within the Israeli society. And all of those long-overdue changes will only come about with the strong, positive support of the North American Jewish community. Far too often, the liberal wing in North America has held itself off from what it considers to be “inappropriate involvement” in the shaping of Israeli society. We have to get over that hesitation.

There are signs that such strong, positive support may in fact be consolidating. Each of us must take up the responsibility of personal involvement in that consolidation.

We have no control over what the responses will be, in the foreign policy arena, from the other side. We can only be certain of one fact: the status quo cannot be maintained.

And we can be very certain that there are elements within Israeli society that are more than willing to take to the streets in a violent response against any and all efforts to bring true democratic religious freedom to Israel.

The risks in all of this are monumental. If we do not handle our relationships in the foreign-policy arena well, Israel could be exposed to immediate existential threat. If we do not handle the reshaping of Israeli society carefully, we could lose Israel as a 21st-century democratic country. But if we fail to take those risks, the even greater risk is the collapse of the Zionist enterprise.

Literally.

The battlegrounds for North America Jewry will be found in the meeting rooms of all elements of the Jewish Federations of North America, in the American Jewish Committee, in Hiddush, in the URJ, in ARZA, and in other like-minded organizations. Coalitions need to be formed. Activists need to sit together. And hope must be embraced.

In any event, just one person’s opinion.

With warm regards.

Stan

—-

Rabbi Stanley Davids serves as the president of ARZENU. He currently resides in Israel with his wife Resa.