Livni enlists Diaspora to fight bill defining Israel as ‘Jewish state’

Ruth Gavison, mandated by Livni to find formula that balances Jewish and democratic nature of state, seeking world Jewry opinion.

December 3, 2013 02:53
3 minute read.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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In a bid to thwart a draft bill defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will begin polling Diaspora Jews for their views on Israel’s character.

Livni sees Diaspora Jewry, whose conceptions of the state potentially differ significantly from those of their their coreligionists in Israel, as a counterbalance to those seeking to pin down Israel’s character once and for all.

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At issue is the so-called Jewish State Law being pushed by the Likud-Beiteinu and Bayit Yehudi parties aimed at resolving the tension between the Jewish and democratic aspects of the state by defining Israel as primarily of Jewish character.

Israel is defined as a “Jewish and democratic state” in two separate Basic Laws but the exact balance between the two sometimes conflicting ideals has never been settled legislatively.

The Likud-Beiteinu-Bayit Yehudi bill is similar to, though less sweeping than, a bill sponsored by Kadima MK Avi Dichter during the 16th Knesset.

In his bill, the former ISS Director defined Israel as “the homeland of the Jewish people in which the Jewish people fulfill their ambition to self-determination according to their cultural and historical legacy.”

The right to national self-determination in Israel would be limited to the Jewish people, according to Dichter’s bill, ending the possibly of Israel ever peacefully and democratically becoming a binational state.

Livni, who expressed fierce opposition to the bill in August, appointed Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison to compose “a constitutional arrangement dealing with the State of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character” as a counterbalance to the various proposals under consideration in the legislature.

The Gavison bill would anchor the elements of the State of Israel’s identity “in a way that balances and integrates these values” of democracy and Judaism, According to Livni.

Gavison has previously expressed her opposition to Jewish immigration from poorer nations, Haaretz reported.

As part of her mandate, Gavison turned to the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute to engage Diaspora Jews in what the think tank is calling an “unprecedented process to impact Israel’s character.”

The JPPI is currently seeking to determine worldwide Jewish opinion on the issues of religion and state being debated in Israel and, Gavison wrote in a letter to JPPI, to determine “the appropriate way to give Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state additional legislative anchoring.”

“The meaning of Israel’s Jewishness and its attitude toward democracy and human rights are important to all Jews,” Gavison said.

JPPI announced in a statement that it had sent a letter to hundreds of Jewish communities and organizations calling on them to call gatherings to discuss the issue of Israel’s core identity leading up to the group’s next annual conference in North America.

“Integrating the views of Diaspora Jews on the matter of the character of the Jewish state provides an historic opportunity to deepen the dialogue between the various parts of the Jewish people and to better define the ties between them,” the JPPI said.

Views on religion and state diverge in many ways between those living in Israel and those in North America, where the bulk of Diaspora Jewry resides.

Americans are used to living in a state with clear boundaries between religion, ethnicity and national identity while Israel is a classical ethnic nation state with a zeitgeist centered around a distinct group identity.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is reportedly furious with Livni’s partnership with Gavison.

A source close to the premier told Haaretz in August that “Netanyahu did not welcome or support the Gavison initiative.”

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