“Zionism is an infinite ideal” proclaims a huge poster at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel. Perhaps that is true for some, but at what cost? After weeks of debate, the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved a controversial piece of legislation which enshrines in law the superior status of Jews over others inside the State of Israel. Liberal democrats around the world, including progressive Canadian Jews who hold to the notion of equality, are expressing extreme discomfort. Read more…
This week, Israel’s Knesset (parliament) voted into law an explicitly discriminatory piece of legislation declaring Israel the national homeland for the Jewish people, promoting Jewish-only settlement and deleting Arabic as an official language. It was one of a series of controversial bills approved this week by Israeli lawmakers that have alarmed the Palestinian, and even some of the Jewish, members of the Knesset and been described by critics as anti-democratic or even draconian, reported the Washington Post.
Many Jewish organizations in Canada, the USA and some in Israel are also criticizing Israel’s new “Nation State Law” – a “Basic Law” (or constitutional-level law) in which the words “equality” and “democratic” are entirely absent – which they say runs counter to democratic values and will damage Israel’s relationship with diaspora communities.
The suite of laws, dealing with a wide range of topics ranging from the Jewish character of the state to the curtailing of left-wing groups critical of the government’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, are seen by some as an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to placate his right-wing government and supporters.
But the new laws are very popular and appear to reflect the increasingly nationalistic (some would say, ‘racist’) trend of the Jewish Israeli public. No Jewish opposition party has declared that they would repeal them.
Some key notions now enshrined in Israeli law…
Another of the laws approved forbids individuals and groups that promote political criticism of the State of Israel from speaking in Israeli schools. It targets all organizations that act to promote “political proceedings against the State of Israel”.
One clause states that Israel supports and encourages Jewish settlement as a “national value.” In practice this means supporting the establishment of “Jewish only” communities across Israel not open to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. This has long been a practice in Israel, but recently human rights groups have attacked this as undemocratic and discriminatory. The new bill explicitly permits this discriminatory practice.
“To not allow someone to move into your neighbourhood is against democratic values,“ objected Miriam Pearlman, the president of ARZA Canada, the Reform movement’s Zionist organization, who wrote to Israel’s Ambassador in Canada. “We’re still fighting for Israel to not only be a Jewish homeland, but a democratic state.
The new legislation defines Hebrew as the only official language of the Jewish State, downgrading Arabic. Arabic is the language of nearly 20% of Israeli citizens, and has until now had official status, though that was rarely enforced.
“What was the reason for that, other than to antagonize a population that has been part of the State of Israel since its inception,” asked Bernie Farber, the communications chair of JSpaceCanada in a comment in the Canadian Jewish News. “It’s the kind of thing that brings Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people, into disrepute.”
Canadian Friends of Peace Now (CFPN), an organization that describes itself as “liberal zionist” also came out in sharp criticism in its newsletter of July 19th.
“The new law will ensure that some citizens are more equal than others,” CFPN declared. “The law states that the Jewish people have the unique right of national self-determination in Israel.”
“This law threatens to undermine Israel’s status as a democracy. (…) It discounts Israel’s founding vision as a country that guarantees equality to all citizens and replaces it with a vision of an exclusively Jewish state.”
Ben Murane, CEO – New Israel Fund of Canada
Similar concerns are also reflected in statements by liberal Jewish organizations in the USA which have expressed discomfort, disappointment and even anger.
Jeremy Ben Ami, president of J Street, a Washington liberal pro-Israel group, told CBC that the bill’s purpose is “to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens.”
“Strong connection between Israel and Jews worldwide is based on these values that Israel is both a Jewish and democratic state,” Ben Ami said, noting the bill would “weaken the strength of Israel’s democracy.”
Potential effect on Canadian Jewish support for Israel
With so many liberal Jewish spokespersons publicly expressing concern, it will be interesting to see what effect these new laws will have on Canadian Jewish support for Israel. Or on their support for the established pro-Israel organizations like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). (As of July 20th CIJA had still not made any comment on the recent Israeli bills.)
Corey Balsam, National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices Canada (IJVC) feels encouraged that so many liberal Jews are daring to speak out.
“A range of Jewish organizations in North America have come out against the bill, worried — for good reason — about its impact on the nature of Israel and the effect its passage is likely to have on ever-worsening relations between Israel and Jews living in the diaspora,” noted Balsam and Sid Shniad who is also on the IJVC coordinating committee. “What many onlookers — including liberal Jews — don’t seem to realize” they continue, “is that this legislation simply enshrines into law what has always been the reality in Israel.”
What about the future?
Many Canadians, and most Canadian Jews, support the basic idea of Zionism – that Jews deserve to have a state of their own. But as that the reality of Zionism unfolds, and the exclusive nature of a “Jewish State” becomes clearer, some may begin to reconsider the original idea.
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