Keeping Israel democratic



Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, is certainly not a leftist; nor is he a liberal or a centrist. By most accounts, he is a reliably right-wing politician. He is not in favor of the “two-state solution;” he prefers some form of confederation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Nevertheless, Rivlin has taken a strong position against a bill promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and approved by his cabinet this past Nov. 23 – calling for a Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” According to a front page article in the Dec. 9 issue of The New York Times, in addition to this central provision, “[d]rafts of the so-called nationality bills would remove Arabic as an official language alongside Hebrew, increase the influence of Jewish law, reduce the power of the Supreme Court, and entrench the automatic citizenship of Jews worldwide and Jewish symbols of the state.”

When Rivlin was elected by the Knesset last June to serve as Israel’s president, a largely ceremonial position, he ended his acceptance speech by affirming, “Long live Israel’s democracy!” Indeed, Rivlin opposes the proposed Basic Law because he sees it as a threat to the delicate balance Israel has long maintained between being both a Jewish state AND a democratic state. In a speech on Nov. 25, Rivlin stated that “[t]he formulators of the (Israeli) Declaration of Independence, with much wisdom, insisted the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not have felt as the Jews had felt in exile.”

If a right-wing politician such as Rivlin cannot support Netanyahu’s push for the “nation-state” Basic Law, one should not be surprised that Israel’s dovish former president, Shimon Peres, calls it “an unnecessary addendum that could compromise the people’s uniting values” as well as “an unnecessary religious argument instead of a broad national agreement, which could turn a political conflict into a religious upheaval that would be difficult to stop.”

I should point out that Israel still has no written constitution; rather, its “Basic Laws” are seen as the building blocks of an eventual constitution. In 1995 Israel’s Supreme Court declared that these Basic Laws are of higher status than regular laws – in effect, substituting for Israel’s still unwritten constitution. If some version of the nationality bill should become a Basic Law, then the 20 percent of Israel’s l.2 million citizens who do not happen to be Jewish could well be reduced to second-class status; only Jewish citizens would have full constitutional protection, since – in language supported by Netanyahu – “the right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

The proposed nation-state Basic Law could well redefine the very nature of Israel:  Is Israel to remain both Jewish AND democratic? Or does Israel devolve into a non-democratic Jewish state? One of the reasons that on Dec. 2 Netanyahu fired cabinet members Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid is that they refused to support the proposed Basic Law. As many of the readers of The Jewish Voice know, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset on Dec. 8; new elections are scheduled for March 17.

While the nation-state Basic Law – should it be passed in any form – will have a major effect on the citizens of Israel, many leaders in the American Jewish community have expressed alarm over the law’s implications. Thus, Arnold Eisen, chancellor of Conservative Judaism’s Jewish Theological Seminary, issued a written statement on Nov. 26, stating in part: “We hope that the State’s lawmakers will have the wisdom to affirm Israel’s character as a democratic Jewish state in a way that does not relegate Israeli Arabs and other minorities to second-class status ... We urge that the bill be withdrawn in its current form and the values of Judaism and democracy, along with a commitment to a Jewish homeland, be appropriately balanced.”

I am not questioning Netanyahu’s legal right to try to redefine Israeli identity in a way that favors Jewishness over democracy; he is the duly elected Prime Minister of Israel. I am an American, not an Israeli citizen; I live here, not there.

Nevertheless, there is something about the current debate over Israel’s proposed nation-state Basic Law that sticks in my craw. What bothers me is Netanyahu’s implication that in his attempt to tilt the balance in Israel toward its Jewish character, he is speaking for me, an American Jew with a profound commitment to democratic principles.

Truth be told, I do not wish to count myself within the category of “privileged individuals.” I think that it would be morally wrong for me, should I seek Israeli citizenship, to automatically be granted special privileges – not available to non-Jewish citizens who have lived in Israel their entire lives – because I happen to be Jewish. If such a law were to be enacted, it would be profoundly unjust and undemocratic.

Netanyahu is, at this moment, the elected leader of the State of Israel; he is not now, never was, and never will be the leader of world Jewry. He does not speak for me or for my sense of what it means to be Jewish. Jewish identity is complicated and multilayered: no one Jew owns the identity of all Jews.

I stand with Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, in his praise of the formulators of Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, who “with much wisdom, insisted that the Arab communities in Israel, as well as other groups, should not have felt as the Jews had felt in exile.” Would that today’s leaders in Israel find a way to keep Israel democratic AND Jewish – a delicately difficult but necessary balance.

James B. Rosenberg is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at