August 22, 2019

Proposed nation-state law crosses American Jewish red lines

I wish I could draw.

A few years back, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the United Nations General Assembly with a cartoonish drawing of a bomb meant to illustrate Iran’s march toward achieving a nuclear weapon. He pointed to a red line across the top of the image, indicating the point of no return at which the mullahs were sure to go nuclear.

If I could draw, I would send the prime minister a picture that represents American Jewry — say, in the shape of the Liberty Bell — and draw a red line across some part of it. That line would represent how far Israel can push against its democratic principles before it loses American-Jewish support.

Netanyahu got a lot of ridicule for his picture, and I’m sure I’d get some for mine. But sometimes, as the prime minister must know, you just have to break it down for people, so they get it.

So, here goes: There exists, I believe, a red line in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel, and that red line is democracy.

The reason the nation-state identity bill, which the prime minister supports, has precipitated a crisis in Israel is that those red lines exist for the Israeli public, as well — both Jews and Arabs.  They, after all, have the largest stake in this debate, which is about the very nature of their country. 

The bill, called “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” would formally identify Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, affirm Jewish law as the inspiration for its legislation, and delist Arabic as an official language. Unlike the country’s Declaration of Independence, the bill makes no mention of Israel as a democratic country or of the rights of its non-Jewish citizens.   

As numerous commentators have pointed out, the law’s intent cannot possibly be to affirm Israel as a Jewish state — something the country’s Declaration of Independence already accomplished. That document also promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex and will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

In the region where Israel thrives, those words are as rare and precious as water. Drain them of their power and Israel as we know it withers and dies.

Instead, the proposed law would seriously undermine those rights, privileging one group, demeaning others and, eventually, frighteningly, laying the legal groundwork to single out and mistreat Israel’s minority. Can I be blunt?  This proposed law lays the legal framework for apartheid.

And that, I’m certain, is the red line.

American Jews cherish the fact that Israel is a Jewish state. It may be hard for some to wrap their heads around, but a country can be a haven for one people, and utilize its symbols, holidays, and religious and cultural inheritance as the basis for civic life without disenfranchising other citizens who live there, or impeding their prosperity or religious practices. There are countries around the world with state religions that embody varying degrees of freedom and democracy, from Anglican England to Muslim Saudi Arabia to Buddhist Cambodia. By objective international measurements of democratic norms, Israel, within its Green Line, ranks pretty high among them. 

Is Israel, at 66 years old, a perfect democracy?  No. America at 66 was a slave-holding, white Christian male redoubt, with some beautiful words and ideals to live up to. And, as the news constantly reminds us, the United States is still a work in progress. Israel, too, is a functioning, struggling democracy.   

As it strives to be a more perfect union, Israel has the moral, financial and political support of American Jews, who know from experience stretching back to 1776 that no country and no system of government, in the history of civilization, has done more to defend our rights, protect our heritage and unleash our potential.  

The irony here is that it is democracy that protected American Jews and enabled them to flourish here. It allowed American Jews to express their identity by joining in the struggle for a Jewish state. They were not cheerleaders or even bit players; they were instrumental in procuring the funds, weapons and political support that made Israel possible. Because of the United States’ political system that gave Jews a voice as a minority, they were the key to getting the world’s largest and strongest nation to back one of the world’s smallest and most vulnerable nations. In other words, the system of government so threatened by this proposed law is the same one that enabled the Jews who support it to thrive in the land of Israel in the first place. 

Will American Jews support Israel no matter what?  Some will — a minority of a minority. But it is a Jewish and democratic Israel that American Jewry signed up for, and it is only that Israel that will inspire, and deserve, their support. 

I know Benjamin Netanyahu knows all this. He is a very smart man. He certainly doesn’t need me to draw him any pictures.