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

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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.

As A Progressive Jew, I am Committed…

As I attempt to write these lines whilst sitting in a train traveling North from Alicante to Barcelona in Spain, my home country, I can’t help but appreciate the beauty of the land of the region of Valencia. To my left, endless fields of orange, pine and palm tress with arid and rough mountains in the background. To my right, the Mediterranean Sea, source of food, life and inspiration for generations. And above all, a peaceful blue sky, only crossed by unconcerned birds, maybe seagulls. My mind drifts away intentionally towards Eretz Israel, where, under the same sky and sun and along the coasts bathed by our beloved Mediterranean, a dreadful war of fire and human hatred prevents longed promises of security and peace for all its inhabitants.

As we all know, Sfarad was at a time a true light to the European kingdoms throughout the dark Middle-Ages, where medicine, literature, poetry, science and philosophy flourished in the fertile ground of a relative peaceful coexistence of the three monotheistic religions present in the peninsula: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The expulsion of the Sefardic Jews in 1492 was interpreted by some Kabbalists of the time as a cosmic drama, a new episode of Shevirat ha-Kelim (the breaking of the vessels) with the dispersion of the shards of light represented by the individual Jews who went on exile along the Mediterranean basin. The town of Sfat received some of these exiled Kabbalists and the wisdom of the Zohar would continue to enlighten the Torah with a specific Mediterranean way of conceiving hope, reunion and redemption.

From the darkest events of the 20th century for European Jewry, Zionism emerged with the promise of hope and redemption for scattered and oppressed Jews throughout a hostile continent. Many were those who embraced the new project since the beginning of the century, some on a voluntary basis, some as the last recourse to preserve their lives and their families’ or to restart a new life where the land flows milk and honey, far away from a European land that was still wet with blood. Palestine, Eretz Israel, welcomed them all, providing not only shelter and protection, but also human dignity, a Jewish life where secular and religious sensitivities would be respected and encouraged, a Jewish present and a Jewish future ledor vador.

As a Progressive Sionist Jew living in Diaspora, I am committed to the realization of the Zionist vision, and the accomplishment of the ideals of the founders of the State of Israel. However, I could not envisage my own commitment if it was not put within the framework of the current challenges being faced by my own generation: the on-going conflict with the Palestinian people and the subsequent territorial disputes, Israel’s recognition by its neighbouring countries, the growing tensions within Israeli society between religious and secular conceptions of modern life, civil rights and responsibilities, economic disparities and lack of opportunities for the youth and marginalized sectors of the society, a fair approach to the issue of immigration and inclusion of minorities, but to name a few. For most of the challenges evoked above, the Israeli society has shown innovative and unique expressions of dealing with them in a constructive manner, however the antagonist positions of the political spheres make progressive and daring solutions seem slow to come, limited and insufficient. Yet I believe that tensions in every human community are necessary and healthy. They mobilize forces, energy and passions by its individuals that otherwise would become stagnant and therefore unproductive, unfertile. Our Zionist history has shown us that more difficult challenges were overcome when the right doses of idealism and pragmatism were applied.

As a Progressive Religious Jew, I believe that the realization of the Zionist project and the prerogatives of the Jewish State of Israel need to be based and inspired on the high ethical standards and values that our Fathers, Mothers and Prophets envisaged for the Jewish people, which were preserved and transmitted from generation to generation. But it is necessary that they are interpreted and put into action according to the challenges and opportunities of modern times. I realize that this is not an easy task, however every generation is illuminated with individuals and communities whom, by sharing a unified vision, can work towards this accomplishment. I have found in the Reform and Progressive Movement, both in Israel and in Diaspora, and in organizations such as ARZENU, the living expression of the moral responsibilities we share as Jews. Help building and developing together a fair, inclusive and progressive State of Israel where justice, peace and prosperity prevail for all Jews and all its inhabitants, should become our priority – this is the only way we can become legitimate, inheritants of our tradition and the land we were promised.

My train is arriving at its final destination, the beautiful city of Barcelona, which counts the oldest synagogue in Europe amongst its treasures. In this city, a young and vibrant community of Reform Jews will meet again this Friday evening to pray for peace among Israelis and Palestinians. Standing for our Israeli friends in these difficult times, we will stand to the final verses of Lekha Dodi and will welcome Shabbat as our Kabbalist sages taught us to do. And as every night, I will pray facing Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mediterranean, asking for divine protection to all Israel and all humanity, wishing that only white clouds and the fragrance of the flowers of the orange trees will cross the blue sky and the songs of birds will be heard. May the thought of Zion direct our hearts and our spirits towards justice and love.

—–

Jose Luis Martin is a  member of Bet Shalom, a Progressive Jewish community in Barcelona, Spain.

 

What is Israel and What Makes It Our Land?

My affiliation into Judaism began when I joined Hashomer Hatzair Hungary at the age of 16, and became a member of Sim Shalom, a Hungarian Progressive congregation shortly afterwards and have been a Reform Jew ever since that turning point in my life. However, these communities were not much more than grounds for socialising  for me until three years later, when I visited Israel for the very first time in my life. My Taglit trip and subsequent volunteering on kibbutz Grofit made me fall in love with the country and finally realise that the existence of a Jewish State is indispensable in keeping Judaism alive. My short stay in Israel made me gain a deeper insight into life in Israel and see that this land is the source, the centre, that fuels Judaism in the Diaspora.

The inevitable questions raised by this topic are how to define Israel and how Israel relates to the Diaspora. I am presently volunteering on kibbutz Lotan where I recently attended a session led by Benjie Gruber (rabbi of the Arava Region), where he asked what exactly we can call ours and what it means to do so. This question is a major one on a traditional kibbutz like Lotan, where private property does not exist at all, but, evidently, the question might be broadened to the whole State of Israel, and in this case, the following problems arise:  If Israel is defined as the land that we, as Jews, can actually call our own, as opposed to the land Jews of the Diaspora have been living on, then what exactly is it that makes it ours? What makes a Hungarian Jew, for instance, not live on his own land, as opposed to an Israeli one, who does? Moreover, if a Hungarian Jew should decide to make alia, then will he finally live on his own land, even though he sees it for the very first time in his life? If after being unable to provide a satisfying answer to these questions, one should finally reach the conclusion that Israel had better not be defined as “our land”, then he has just returned to the starting point and is once again faced with the problems of what to call ours and, maybe even more importantly, what Israel is.

Given the fact that these questions have caused innumerable disputes and splits in Judaism, I am evidently not going to provide a black-and-white answer for them, but I would gladly welcome any viewpoints, comments, on the topic and I am also going to share mine. To me, calling something my own – or our own, for a nation – originates from a deep spiritual attachment towards that entity, rather than from material sources. Therefore, a Hungarian Jew having lived only in Hungary but loving Israel can call Israel his land just as well as he can call Hungary his land provided that feels it to be so. That is why, even though I have spent only roughly three months of my entire life in Israel so far and regardless of where I might live later on or to what extent I should agree or disagree with the current politics of Israel, it is and will always be my land, and to all of us who share a deep love for the country, it will always be our land.

—-

Isabelle Menczer is an active member of Sim Shalom, a Progressive Jewish Congregation in Budapest, Hungary. There she serves as a teacher and is head of the youth group. She is also a valued member of the ARZENU community. 

ARZENU Press Release – July 9, 2014

As Progressive Religious Zionists, we grieve over the murder of the three yeshiva boys, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel.  We extend our deepest condolences to their families and pray that the perpetrators of such a heinous act will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  As Progressive Religious Zionists, we grieve over the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.  We extend our deepest condolences to his family and pray that the perpetrators of such a heinous act will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

For Jews and Arabs in Israel, the Middle East and around the world, we perceive this time to be one for mourning and healing, not for revenge and continued bloodshed.  We shall continue our efforts to transform the fist of hatred into the handshake of peace.  We pray that in our days Isaiah’s vision shall come true that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”  We also subscribe to the teaching of the Rabbis:  “Who is strongest of all?  One who turns an enemy into a friend” (Avot de-Rabi Natan 23:1).