(This is a guest post by Jamie Cowen, a lawyer who lives in central Israel.)
The Nationality bill is an attempt by Israel’s right wing parties to define Israel as a Jewish State. You might ask, why is this a problem since Israel is a Jewish state? Exactly. What? Let’s examine modern Israeli history.
The land of Israel was occupied by numerous powers for 2000 years. The longest running occupation was the Ottoman Empire (1516-1917). As part of the Treaty of Paris of 1856, concluding the Crimean War, England successfully pressured the Empire to allow Jews to immigrate to their former home land, thus opening the door for the Aliyah movements (immigration to Israel). Just prior to the end of World War I, the Zionist movement lobbied for the British to declare the then Land of Palestine to be a Jewish homeland. This culminated in the issuing of the Balfour Declaration – a letter from then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Zionist movement. The letter stated, in part, that the British government favored the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Treaty of Versailles, concluding World War I, granted Palestine to the British, thus making the Balfour Declaration effective and ushered in a much larger immigration of Jews to Israel.
Following World War II, the British transferred their mandate over Palestine to the newly formed United Nations. In November, 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine into two states, a Jewish one and an Arab (Palestinian one). On May 14, 1948, Israel was officially established when she issued her Declaration of Independence. Here are some relevant parts of the Declaration’s text:
“Accordingly, we, members of the people’s council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations general assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” “The State of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews and for the Ingathering of the Exiles from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Since the issuing of the Declaration, Israel has always considered herself a Jewish and democratic state. Both concepts are embedded in some of Israel’s Basic Laws, a form of constitution for the nation. However, from time to time, the Jewish and democratic natures clash. Examples are: Businesses are forced to close on Shabbat. Couples who choose not to be married by the Orthodox Rabbinate can only marry outside of the country. Women seeking divorce from their husbands must seek the Rabbinate’s approval first or cannot be divorced. Generally, however, democratic principles trump Jewish religious standards. The tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic natures is often resolved by the Supreme Court. So, what’s the problem?
Some of Israel’s right wing politicians, including the Prime Minister, believe 1) the Supreme Court has erred on the side of democracy over Jewishness, and 2) Israel needs a new Basic Law declaring she is a Jewish state in order to thwart international efforts to enhance the rights of Arabs both within the State and the territories and to force the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel to declare that Israel is a Jewish state. There are several fundamental problems with this new proposal.
1) Some of the language in various proposals would make Jewish law a guide for Israeli law. As a body of law, Jewish law is an amazing set of laws developed over thousands of years. However, Jewish law is developed and determined by rabbis and thus lends itself to a theocratic form of government. History is replete with failed theocratic states, e.g. Iran, Sudan, the new Caliphate of Syria/Iraq. Freedom of speech and religion would be jeopardized by such a proposal. 2) Even if the language above is stricken, a new Basic Law could lead to a reconsideration of Israeli case law, which has helped make Israel a modern and successful nation. Anytime a new law is enacted, it must be interpreted by the courts. There are numerous possible unintended consequences from such an action. 3) Why is there even a need for such a law? It’s clear from Israel’s Declaration of Independence and other Basic Laws that Israel is a Jewish State. Pushing this issue again is simply a provocative act towards the international community and Arab citizens. 4) The enactment of such an act will likely lead to the collapse of the current government and the rise of a new one, possibly full of haredim (ultra-Orthodox), to the detriment of the country generally, and to the Messianic Jewish community, particularly. 5) Enhancing religious law in Israel is a recipe for disaster. The sole arbiters of Jewish law in Israel are the haredim. They comprise a small minority of Jews both in Israel and throughout the world. Many of their rulings are overly restrictive and discriminatory. Secular Jews would flee the country, and the country would regress in numerous areas, including religious plurality and tolerance. The result would be a type of Islamization of Israel.
Please pray for the defeat of this bill and for righteous and progressive leaders to arise in the land.