25 November 2014
Against the Nation-State Bill
Jerusalem: A refraction of a refraction of a refraction of a refraction.
Whose eyes? Whose soul? Whose narrative? Whose God?
And now, to our great shame, whose democracy?
When news came through various outlets late yesterday that the Israeli Cabinet passed its controversial "nation-state" bill, mandating Jewish character over democratic character for an already Jewish democracy, a further fractionalization occurred for Israeli and American Jews, as well as Arab Israeli citizens of Israel who embrace Israel's democracy, however imperfect.
But the bill's content, calling for a two-tiered civic structure, demoting Arabic from an official language of the state and not allowing for equal housing growth and development in the Arab sector, means, in fact, that for the first time in its history, Israel is taking a dangerous step toward unraveling the founding vision of the country as encoded in the Declaration of Independence, ratified in 1948: Israel "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions."
As political experts debate the finer points of the bill and its harder and softer versions (coalition politics mandating the assuaging of the most extreme voices who yet again win the day in a Netanyahu government) clouds the picture for Israel's future in new and uncertain ways. Make no mistake about it: Prime Minister Netanyahu's Cabinet is now officially less concerned with Israel as a democracy--arguably it's greatest claim and most salient point of self-defense in an ever extreme region--than it is with Israel as a Jewish state. And the very claim of those who built the state with their blood, toil, tears and sweat--that the Jewish people's political redemption in our historic homeland is made real through the unique agency of "freedom, justice and peace"--is, unabashedly under attack.
This is a moment of great potential despair and disillusionment for Jewish communities both here in America and in Israel that in the long run will do great harm to Israel's future. The continued descent into extreme politics; the closing off of any real hope of dialogue and engagement with Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors; and the trading of a truly democratic Israel for an exclusively Jewish Israel, runs directly against the greatest strengths and aspirations of Zionism's original intent.
When, as Zionists and Jews, we claim to be: a "light unto the nations" in the best prophetic tradition; when others seek Israel's aid in times of crisis; when Israeli ingenuity, technological know-how, surfeit of Nobel prizes and claims as a bulwark against Islamic extremism (in partnership with countless Western governments and moderate Arab allies in an increasingly inflamed Middle East--are we really helping our own cause by creating a legal encoded caste system, one for Jews and one for Arabs? In explaining Israel to young people--the Golden Ticket of Engagement for the future of Zionism--are we winning an argument by encoding Otherness as lower than Jewishness? Was Zionism's original demand, to be a normal people with a normal nation, nothing but a temporary down payment for an ethno-centric, modified democracy of qualified equalities?
I was thinking of those lapel pins that certain supporters in the pro-Israel community like to wear of the Israeli and American flag side-by-side, each a potent symbol for each nation's commitment to a unique vision of freedom and justice, gifts for the privilege of citizenship.
From the Israeli Declaration of Independence: "it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex."
From the American Pledge of Allegiance: "One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
The shared vision is clear in words pledged and encoded in documents but in our day it is now under attack. It was for my grandparents whose first and only trip to Israel bequeathed to me irrevocable connection between American values and Jewish values; between the shared principles of our two civilizations--that freedom and equality always win the day.
A vision blurred. A future made less clear and more dangerous by the certain alienation that will occur by diluting and cheapening the definition and parameters of Israeli democracy.
War refracts. Extremism refracts. Hatred refracts. Racism refracts.
But the Ur-Image of Jewish existence--that the human being (not the Jew, the human being!) is made in the Divine Image--is the unrefracted, the pure, the foundation value of any society in which we have always, and will always, aspire to live.