This has been a challenging week in Israel-Diaspora relations. Israel’s “Nation-State Bill” was voted into law early Thursday morning, following vigorous debate. Jewish communities around the world have a number of concerns about this new law – especially its clauses about Diaspora, Arabic language, and the preference for the establishment of Jewish communities over others. Working with many other groups and people, the Federation system worked to remove some of the most problematic aspects of the bill from the final version. Still, many were disappointed with the law that ultimately passed.
The Jewish Federation has an Israel office which has prepared this background document to help explain the important points of the new law. Here some of the highlights.
What is the Nation State bill? It is a newly enacted “basic law” that enshrines in legislation Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jewish People. This is not the first time such a bill has been proposed.
What is a basic law? Israel does not have a constitution. The first Knesset decided that constitutional legislation would be adopted piecemeal through the enactment of “basic laws.” The contents of the basic laws are meant to express the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, as well as set out the structure and powers of government.
What are the concerns about this law? Most of the debate was about the precise wording of three clauses:
Language - During the British Mandate three languages - English, Hebrew and Arabic - were all considered official languages. When Israel declared its independence, it amended the British law by striking English as an official language (largely out of animosity to the British), while Hebrew and Arabic continued to share legal status as national languages of Israel. In practice, however, Hebrew became the primary language.
The Nation-State law reflects this reality in a basic law. It establishes Hebrew as the country’s sole official language while granting Arabic “special status.” (This is not unique as several European countries have an official language despite other minority groups.) Not surprisingly, since language is a core aspect of culture, this change in the status quo is viewed as an unnecessary affront to the significant Arab minority in the country.
Jewish “hityashvut” (i.e. formation of communities) - The law recognizes the establishment of new Jewishcommunities in Israel as a “national value,” without according similar status to the establishment of communities of other groups. This clause manifests the character of the state as a homeland for the Jewish people. It reflects existing policies which try to encourage both native-born Israeli Jews and Jewish immigrants to further develop the country by setting up additional communities. However, because the clause refers exclusively to Jews, without a corresponding right of non-Jews, many feel this is discriminatory. This clause is an improvement over a redacted version of the bill which recognized an explicit right to build segregated communities.
Relationship with the Diaspora - Originally, the bill included a clause that read: “The State will act to maintain the connection between the State and the Jewish people, wherever they are.” Later, by request of ultra-Orthodox Members of Knesset, the clause was amended by deleting the words “wherever they are” and specifying that the State will act “in the Diaspora” to maintain this connection.
This entire clause has been characterized as “patronizing” to Jews outside of Israel, ignoring the idea that Israel-Diaspora relations are a two-way street. Many feel the specific change is motivated by a desire to limit the impact of Diaspora Jewry on religious pluralism in Israel.
In the end, what does this all mean? Most of its provisions are already reflected in existing laws and policies and do not really mark a shift. Therefore, many see no issues with this new law while others are concerned that this may lead to nationalist policies that could come at the expense of minority rights.
I want to also call your attention to another piece of upsetting news. Rabbi Dov Haiyun, a Conservative rabbi from Haifa, was taken into police custody and questioned for officiating weddings. Rabbi Haiyun has been marrying couples for years, including some who are unable to marry through the Israeli rabbinate because of its religious policies. The Haifa rabbinical court lodged a criminal complaint against him, calling his actions – the joining of two Jews in marriage – “criminal and illegal.” This is the first time Israeli police have interrogated anyone for this “offense” and it is a step of significant concern. The public outcry in Israel has helped raise the profile of marriage freedom, an issue Federation supports through its iRep program.
We are well aware of the impact of these types of stories and policies (whether fully understood or not) on people’s perceptions of Israel and Jewry worldwide. Together with our partners at the Jewish Agency, we have raised our concerns with Israeli political leaders. We have high expectations and hopes for Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people. It is meant to be a home for all Jews and a reflection of Jewish values, a vibrant democracy in which all citizens are entitled to full participation in society. Our Jewish Federation will fight to ensure Israel’s legacy as our Jewish homeland -- both as a Jewish and democratic state.
On a final note, Saturday evening we begin the observance of Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), the day when both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, among multiple other historical events. Tisha b'Av is the culmination of a three week period of increasing mourning, when weddings and other parties are not permitted, and people refrain from cutting their hair. From the first to the ninth of Av, it is customary to refrain from eating meat or drinking wine (except on Shabbat) and from wearing new clothing. The restrictions on Tisha b'Av itself are similar to those on Yom Kippur, and traditionally we sit on low stools, read from the Book of Lamentations, and recite mourning prayers.