How to define the Jewishness of Israel was debated on Sunday by ministers Tzipi Livni, Naftali Bennett, Shai Piron and Gideon Sa’ar as part of new legal initiatives.
Livni, justice minister, and Bennett, Jerusalem and Diaspora affairs minister, continued a periodic clash on the issue, and Bennett said there should be “zero tolerance” for a national identity other than a Jewish identity.
Before going on the attack, Bennett remarked that “no minister has worked as obsessively as me to integrate Arabs economically from an individual perspective.”
It was said as part of his comments at a Jerusalem conference organized by the Kohelet Policy Forum and moderated by former secretary to the prime minister, Zvi Hauser.
The minister said that the state should continue to elevate its efforts to integrate and empower Arab-Israelis on an individual economic level.
But Bennett quickly reverted to the attack.
He drew a distinction between individual identity, where all should be equal, and national identity, where the clear focus should be on the state’s Jewishness.
Bennett raised the specter of Arab-Israelis demanding from the Supreme Court the right of return for Palestinians to Israel as if the Law of Return was not maintained as an exclusively Jewish-focused instrument.
In that light, Bennett pushed a bill that his party has promoted for strengthening the Jewishness of the state in domestic law, including potentially inserting the provisions to confront Arab-Israelis who are promoting a multinational approach for State of Israel.
While making some jokes and having some light moments in between their speeches, once she took the podium, Livni blasted Bennett’s approach. She criticized those who only try to define the state’s Jewishness, while ignoring or putting as secondary the state’s democratic character.
She said the two issues must be defined simultaneously, and that delineating the two properly was key in being able to make fateful decisions in the peace process to avoid a binational state that could leave Jews in the minority.
Livni said her definition of Israel was as “a Jewish state which is completely equal for all of its citizens, period.”
She took issue with those who elevate Halacha over modern law.
Piron, education minister, moved away from the Bennett- Livni debate, saying “we should avoid mixing debate about Israel’s Jewishness with how to resolve” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He implied that conflating the issues undermines internal Israeli dialogue. He briefly took a swipe at Bennett, saying it was important to define Jewishness “on our own terms” and not because of the specter of threats.
Sa’ar, interior minister, gave a history of how Jewishness has been defined in Israel in different eras, implying that the issue has been without a real solution for far too long.
He criticized some Arab-Israeli leaders who have not accepted the state’s Jewishness. In addition, he decried some leftwing leaders who wish the country to be a state of its citizens even to the extent that they promote school books that undermine Jewish identity – books that he said he tried to remove from circulation when he was education minister.