Divided US Jews largely silent on ‘Jewish state bill’

Despite relative silence, several prominent leaders of American Jewish community express reservations over how controversial bill would affect Israel’s social fabric.

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November 26, 2014 03:33
3 minute read.
kippa

A man wears a kippa. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

The American Jewish community has remained largely on the sidelines during the acrimonious debate surrounding the cabinet’s approval of the “Jewish state bill” on Sunday, although several prominent leaders have expressed reservations over how it would affect Israel’s social fabric.

Representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the Orthodox Union, and the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America all told The Jerusalem Post that they do not intend to weigh in on the issue, which cuts to the heart of the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.

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Support and opposition to the bill, which seeks to enshrine the Jewish people’s exclusive national right to self-determination in Israel while maintaining the equal rights of non-Jewish citizens as a basic law, has largely been determined by political ideology, with the Right squaring off against the Center-Left.

Anti-Defamation League national chairman Abraham Foxman, one of the few American Jewish leaders to issue a public statement on the issue, said that he finds it troubling that the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel “has increasingly become a highly charged politicized issue.”

The principles of Jewish identity and democratic governance are both enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the current debate in Israel “has undermined the settled nature of this essential element of Israel’s national identity,” he asserted.

“Attempts to further codify this concept in the basic laws are well-meaning but unnecessary,” Foxman said. “It is troubling that some have sought to use the political process to promote an extreme agenda which could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewish one.”

Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, likewise came out against the legislation, telling an Israeli newspaper that he feels more efforts are needed to strengthen democracy rather than the Jewish nature of the state.



A spokeswoman for Jacobs told the Post that the rabbi is completely in agreement with a statement by the Israeli branch of the Reform movement, which complained that the law would be harmful not only to the rights of non-Jewish minorities, but is “destined to weaken” the principle of Israel being the national home of the Jewish people.

The National Council of Young Israel, which represents a national network of modern-Orthodox synagogues, was more well disposed to the bill, however, mirroring its support among members of Israel’s religious nationalist community.

“We support the designation of Israel as a Jewish state,” NCYI president Farley Weiss told the Post on Tuesday.

“It is the fulfillment of a 2,000-year-old dream and laid the foundation for the law of return that has saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.

“I personally worked as a volunteer law clerk at the Israel Supreme Court in 1988, and it was starting to become obvious that this law is needed for the courts when deciding issues relating to preserving the Jewish character of Israel. No longer should someone who endorses terrorism against Jews like MK Zoabi be able to be a member of the Knesset in a Jewish state. We endorse what we understand will likely be the language of the Jewish state law.”

Young American Jews are more socially and politically liberal than their antecedents and, according to last year’s Pew Research Center study of American Jewry, harbor more reservations about Israeli policies in regard to the Palestinians.

Moreover, three quarters of American Jews are supporters of the Democratic Party, indicating a more liberal political bent that aligns with the Israeli factions opposed to the bill.

A number of Israeli-Arab organizations have also proposed changes in Israel’s basic identity over the past several years, with a coalition of civil society groups calling for the end of Israel’s Jewish character


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