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Why Israel’s Controversial New Nation-State Law Matters to All Jews

Why Israel’s Controversial New Nation-State Law Matters to All Jews

Jerusalem stone columns, each topped by a waving Israeli flag

“The Israel Reform Movement and the North American Reform Movement passionately oppose this new law because of the harmful effect on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, as well as its negative impact on the balance between the various core founding values of the State of Israel.” (Statement from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism)

The Israeli parliament’s passing of the Nation-State bill into law this week has dominated Israeli and international news. Why is it so important, and what is its impact on Jews who don’t live in Israel? We break down the new law, its meaning, and its potential impact.

What is the Nation-State Law?

The Nation-State Law, passed by the Knesset on Wednesday, prioritizes Israel’s Jewish identity over its democratic one. This would upend the balance of these foundational principles and undermine the rights of minorities in Israel. It is a Basic Law, meaning it carries constitution-like force and the ability to significantly impact Israel’s entire legal system.

What does the Nation-State Law actually do?

This legislation impacts many communities across Israel and around the world in the following ways:

First, it downgrades the official status of the Arabic language in Israel. This move may impact the accessibility of state services to non-Hebrew speakers, and demonstrates needless hostility toward non-Jewish citizens of Israel.

Second, the Nation-State Bill promises that “the state of Israel will work in the diaspora to preserve the bond between the state and the members of the Jewish people.” This phrase was specifically selected to prevent the worldwide progressive Jewish community from advocating for religious freedom within Israel.

Additionally, this bill makes it more difficult for those fighting against BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) because it diminishes the value of democracy in Israel and gives more credence to Israel’s detractors.

This law also comes at a particularly troubling time: Israel recently passed a surrogacy law that bans gay couples from working with surrogate mothers in Israel, and Israeli police recently dragged a Conservative rabbi out of bed for interrogation about his officiation at a non-Orthodox wedding.

Why is the Reform Jewish community opposed to the Nation-State Law?

The Reform Movements in North America and Israel opposed this law because it causes real damage to marginalized communities within Israel and to the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. We feel strongly that this bill represents the interests of non-liberal Jews and the ultra-Orthodox parties who hold a monopoly over Jewish life in the Jewish State.

The founders of Israel not only believed that they could form a state that was Jewish and democratic, they believed it was essential that Israel embody both these values. Now is not the time to turn away from those core tenets of Judaism; now is the time to build a more equal and accepting Israel.

Why do some people support the Nation-State Bill?

There are several reasons the Nation-State Bill was voted into law.

For starters, most of the bill is written in language that appears to be patriotic, even as it undermines Israel’s core values. Certain sections discuss the national anthem, the Hebrew language, and other state emblems.

The Likud government’s coalition partners (representing nationalistic parties), made a deal with ultra-Orthodox parties to sideline other issues of concern to non-Orthodox Jews in exchange for short-term political gain in getting this bill passed.

Many in the ruling coalition feel the need to emphasize the fact Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people at a time when the question has come under attack from many in the international community, insisting that recognition of Israel as the Jewish nation-state be part of the criteria for continued negotiations with the Palestinians. This law is a way to enshrine that notion that others felt was obvious and unnecessary for basic law.

Though some claim the law is simply codifying that Israel is a Jewish State, it is extending far beyond that – and doing significant damage.

Which other organizations and people oppose the law?

To name a few: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; Natan Sharansky, outgoing Jewish Agency chairman, and Isaac Herzog, incoming Jewish Agency Chairman; the Union for Reform Judaism; the Association of Reform Zionists of America; the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism; the Israel Religious Action Center; Jerry Silverman, president of the Jewish Federations of North America; New Israel Fund; the Meretz, Hadash, Ta’al and Labor parties; Ayman Odeh; J Street; T’ruah; Americans for Peace Now; Ameinu; Aytzim’s Green Zionist Alliance; Habonim Dror North America; Hashomer Hatzair North America; Keshet; the National Council of Jewish Women, Reconstructing Judaism; Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel; and Tivnu: Building Justice.

From ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America:\

Israel is a Jewish State, and the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in our Homeland. The Nation-State Law does not advance the core tenets  of Zionism, it undermines them by denying the fundamental place of democracy in the Zionist vision. Those who believe in pluralism, equal rights, and the centrality of democracy in the Jewish State believe this law is not simply about the State’s flag or national anthem, it is a thinly veiled power grab.   

Read Israeli Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv’s statement on the new law, as well, given on behalf of the Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism.

To learn more about the Nation-State Bill, check out the following links:

Chelsea Feuchs is a rising second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She previously served as the communications and social media associate for ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

 

Chelsea Feuchs
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Rabbi Rick Jacobs on stage at the URJ Biennial
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