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What's the Point of This New Israeli Legislation?

What's the Point of This New Israeli Legislation?

Imagine a law that asserts that I am a woman: The Womanhood Act, a hypothetical piece of legislation. This law entitles me to the rights that women have and denies these rights to all non-women. Now imagine a different law that recognizes women as people, and gives them rights based on the equality between women and men. The first law is meaningless, serving no purpose besides aggravating a lot of men and stating what I already know, while the second law has the potential of making a real contribution. 

A controversial nation-state bill that passed its initial vote in the Israeli government yesterday is much like this imaginary womanhood act. Take, for example, the bill's assertion that only the Hebrew calendar will be the official state calendar. Go ahead and ask 10 random Israelis what the Hebrew date is today (Bet b’Kislev, Tash'a), or ask them their Hebrew date of birth. My guess is they will need to call their mother to figure out the answer.

Even worse is the assertion that Arabic, the native tongue of 21% of Israel's population, will no longer be an official language on par with Hebrew, as it is now. What is the point of giving only Jews collective rights? What purpose does it serve?

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein wrote that this bill would make “significant changes in the founding principles of constitutional law as anchored in the Declaration of Independence and in the basic laws of the Knesset," that it could "flatten the democratic character of the state.“ The government of Israel, at the worst timing imaginable, has chosen to cope with internal partisan squabbles by initiating dangerous, sweeping legislation that ignores the vital need to find a common denominator and undermines our democracy.

As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a recent interview with Haaretz:

“It seems to me at this particular moment that we need to be strengthening the democratic side of the ‘Jewish and democratic' state.  I don’t think there’s any doubt in the world about Israel’s Jewish character and its unique purpose and mission, but there is a need to strengthen its democratic character, especially for Israeli Arabs.”

Israel needs a constitution, but this is not the way to go about it. If the government really wants to take a bold step in defining Israel's character as a Jewish and democratic state, there is no need to look further than our own Declaration of Independence, which asserted 66 years ago that Israel  "will affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race, or gender." Then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was not afraid to mention equality, a word so conspicuously absent from the current bill.

The Israel Religious Action Center will be working intensively over the next week to block this bill from becoming law. We call on Prime Minister Netanyahu to reconsider this harmful bill and work instead toward a constitution that would reflect the values of our Declaration of Independence and the essence of a shared society for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. 

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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