Will Jewish-state bill politicize process for defining who is a Jew?

The nation-state bill has proved to be a topic of contention in the Knesset, where now MKs are butting heads over its impact on Jewish identity in Israel.

November 15, 2017 05:10
2 minute read.
Israeli flag western wall

‘TOO OFTEN, Diaspora Jews encounter a reflex of judgment and exclusion when expressing opinions about Israel that deviate from the established norm"'.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Having already fought about balancing prioritizing Judaism versus democracy in the new nation-state bill, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee this week wrestled with the issue of defining who is a Jew.

The bill is part of a government effort to interject greater concern for the country’s Jewishness into the constellation of constitutional law concerns that different branches of the government, including the courts, consider when choosing between secular democratic and Jewish principles.

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For example, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has persistently said the High Court of Justice would not have repeatedly struck down government policies aimed at encouraging African migrants to leave Israel if it needed to consider maintaining the country’s Jewish character as a cardinal principle.

The initial version of the bill expresses the country’s commitment to Jews throughout the world; to strengthening their Jewish identity and connection with Israel; and to defending them from antisemitic oppression.

Currently, the commitment is to “the descendants of the Jewish nation.” But opposition MKs want to add a phrase reaffirming the state’s commitment “to all of its citizens” – meaning including its Arab, Druse and other non-Jewish citizens.

Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar drew attention to another issue.

“There is no debate that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish nation. But when there is a dispute, and there is a citizen who is not considered Jewish according to some streams [of Judaism]… it will be sent on to the High Court and then many will complain that it [the High Court] is intervening.”

She said that, if the coalition insists on including the issue in the law, it must state that who is a Jew is inclusive of definitions from all streams of Judaism.

More specifically, those who oppose certain aspects of the law are concerned it will limit the Law of Return, which grants any Jew the right to move to Israel, to applying only to Jews defined as such by Haredi rabbis, as opposed to the current situation in which it is applied on a far broader basis.

Coalition MKS said the new bill would strengthen, and not detract from, the state’s commitment to encouraging Jews to move to Israel.

Some opposition members, including Israeli-Arab MKs also objected to the law’s emphasis on Jews at the expense of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, though many make the same objections against the existing Law of Return.

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