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Israel Is Not the “Nation-State” of American Jews

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2018

In July, the Israeli Knesset passed a new “Nation-State” law which moves the country away from being a democracy, which it has always claimed to be.  
This legislation declares that the right to self-determination, once envisioned to include all within its borders, is “unique to the Jewish people.” Arabic has been eliminated as an official language. The law has now become what in Israel is called a “Basic Law,” meaning it has become part of the constitution. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a proponent of the legislation, declared, “This is a defining moment for the State of Israel.”  
Claiming that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” rather than a state of all its citizens, 21% of whom are not Jewish, has a number of serious problems. Israel, in fact, is not the “nation-state” of American Jews. The Zionist philosophy to which Mr. Netanyahu and his government adhere, argues that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, and that those living elsewhere are in “exile.” Repeatedly, the Israeli government, with no mandate to do so, speaks in the name of “the Jewish people,” the majority of whom are citizens of other countries.  
Homeland of American Jews is the U.S.  
The homeland of American Jews is the United States, and whatever the Knesset passes into law is completely irrelevant to Jews in other countries. When terrorist attacks were aimed at Jewish sites in Copenhagen, Paris and Brussels, Mr. Netanyahu urged the Jews of those countries to leave and return to their real “homeland,” Israel. He was immediately rebuked by leading rabbis in Denmark, France and Belgium. Other national leaders are content to speak on behalf of their own citizens. Mr. Netanyahu, is not.  
The Nation-State law is most immediately an assault on Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. Amman Wodehouse, leader of the Joint List Arab faction in the Knesset, said, “Today, I will have to tell my children, along with all the children of Palestinian Arab towns in the country, that the state has declared that it does not want us here.” Hassan Jabreen, general secretary of Adalah, a Palestinian human rights organization in Israel, said, “The law features key elements of apartheid, which is not only immoral, but also absolutely prohibited under international law … it constitutionally enshrined the identity of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only — despite the residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights — and guaranteed the exclusive ethnic-religious character of Israel as Jewish.”  
Particularly poignant was the manner in which the Nation-State law impacted Israel’s Druze minority. The Druze are ethnic Arab members of a religious minority that is an offshoot of Islam, incorporating elements of other faiths. In Israel, they number about 150,000. But unlike other Arab Israelis, who are mainly exempt from military service, Druze are drafted into the conscript army and are widely active in mainstream governance and media, some rising high in the political and military ranks. In early August, tens of thousands of people gathered in Tel Aviv to protest the new law, which has provoked outrage among the country’s most integrated minority. “No one can preach to us about loyalty, and the military cemeteries testify to this,” declared the Druze spiritual leader, Sheikh Muwafaq Tarif to the demonstrators. “We have always been proud of the state, and never questioned its Jewish identity. We believed that part of the state’s Jewish ethos would be to grant full equality to its non-Jewish citizens, and first among them the loyal Druze. Despite our utter loyalty, the state does not see us as equal.”  
“Killing my Israeli dream”  
A Druze journalist, Riad Ali, delivered an impassioned six minute monologue on the public broadcast channel during a prime-time newsmagazine show, saying the law had “confirmed the killing of my Israeli dream” and had turned Druze soldiers into “mercenaries.” Many Jewish Israelis shared these sentiments. Mordechai Kremnitzrr, a former dean of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he was “ashamed” as a “Zionist patriot,” and broke down in tears during a radio interview.  
In an article in The New York Times (July 31, 2018), Sayed Kashua, the author most recently of “Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life,” writes: “So what does the new law change? Perhaps not that much. It has turned de facto racism into de Jure racism. The law seeks to legislate what Israel has been effectively telling non-Jewish minorities all along: You will never be a part of this country, you will never be equal. A state in which Judaism is the only national expression permissible by law will, by definition, reject any minority member who wishes to be part of it, even if he is, like me, fluent in its culture, or, as I do, writes literature in its language, respects its laws, serves its society.”  
In Kashua’s view, “Israel’s message to its Arab citizens is that it does not wish to be our state. Moreover, it prefers to be the state of people who were born elsewhere, who do not speak its language, have never visited or paid it taxes or served it in any way. The State of Israel will welcome these foreigners, wherever they are from, as long as they are considered Jewish under Orthodox Jewish law. Individuals who are lucky enough to be born to Jewish mothers can — practically overnight — receive Israeli citizenship, join the ruling race and become masters of the native population … It seems the only hope for the … Palestinians to avoid losing what is left of their home is to find a Jewish mother who will agree to adopt them.”  
Another step toward annexation  
Critics in Israel argue that the law is another step toward full annexation of the West Bank which Israel has occupied in violation of international law for 51 years. Roni Pelli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says that, “This bill is not about law or justice, it is all about normalizing the Israeli occupation and blurring the difference between Israel and the occupied territories that are under military rule. The explicit aim of the bill is to make things easier for Israeli authorities that harm Palestinians to make it more difficult for them to achieve justice.”  
In August, Uri Avnery, an Israeli peace activist, member of the Knesset for a decade, and one of the first Israelis to advocate for the establishment of a Palestinian state more than 70 years ago, died at 94. In what appears to have been his last column, published in Haaretz on August 7, he called the Nation-State law adopted by the Knesset “semi-fascist.” Years ago, he wrote, he and his friends asked the Israeli Supreme Court to change the “nationality” on their identity cards from “Jewish” to “Israeli.” The court refused, stating that there was no Israeli nation.  
In his final column, he cited Israel’s 1.7 million Arab minority, as well as hundreds of thousands of European non-Jews who had immigrated from the former Soviet Union with their Jewish relatives. ”So is there an Israeli nation?” He wrote. ”Of course there is. Is there a Jewish nation? Of course there isn’t.”  
How Holocaust survivors could mistreat Palestinians  
When Robert Fisk of The Independent asked Avnery how the survivors of the Holocaust could have permitted the slaughter of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut, a war crime committed by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies, while Israeli soldiers watched but did not intervene, Avnery responded: ”I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe the people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it’s the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism … you get a moral ‘power of attorney,’ a permit to do anything you want because nothing can compare to what happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel. Everyone is convinced that the IDF is more humane than any other army. ‘Purity of arms’ was the slogan of the Haganah army in 1948. But it never was true at all.”  
In a 2012 interview, Avnery told The Independent, “When I met Arafat in 1982, the terms were all there. The Palestinian minimum and maximum terms are the same: a Palestinian state next to Israel, comprising the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem as a capital, small exchanges of land and a symbolic solution to the refugee problem. But this lies on the table like a wilted flower.”  
Israelis used to believe that their country could be both “Jewish” and “democratic.” Polling by the Israeli Democracy Institute indicates that this is now a minority position. Larger subsets say the country should be either Jewish first or democratic first. Those who say Israel should be Jewish first overwhelmingly belong to the political right, which pushed through the nation-state law. But the majority of all Jews say that “crucial national decisions” like self-determination should be left to a Jewish majority.  
Democracy in decline  
Israeli democracy has been declining for many years, according to the respected index known as V-dem that tracks countries across a host of metrics. In the mid-1990s, Israel scored alongside South Korea and Jamaica. Today, it is seen on par with African democracies such as Namibia and Senegal and well below Tunisia, the Middle East’s highest scored democracy.  
Many Jewish voices in the U.S. and Israel have sharply criticized the new law, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Alissa Wise of Jewish Voice for Peace declared that, “Apartheid in Israel was just made official and it’s devastating. This is a … racist and discriminatory move to punish and rob Palestinians of their most basic rights and freedoms. And as a Jew and a rabbi, this act runs counter to the Judaism that I love … This bill cements Israel as an apartheid state. Palestinians, no matter where they live, are controlled by the Israeli government that robs them of basic rights and freedoms.”  
The respected Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose career has taken him to institutions such as La Scala in Milan, and led him to create, along with the late Edward Said, the West-East Divan Orchestra (WED), which brings together young musicians from throughout the Middle East, both Arab and Israeli, responded to the Nation-State law this way: “The racist new law makes me ashamed to be an Israeli.” In an article in Haaretz and The Guardian, he characterized the law as “a very clear form of apartheid.” Israel, he laments, has rejected the equality called for in its Declaration of Independence and “has passed a law that replaces the principle of equality and universal values with nationalism and racism.”  
Two classes of citizens  
Clause C of the Nation-State law declares, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This clause acknowledges two classes of citizens, those to whom the state belongs, and those to whom it does not. Thus, the 1.7 million non-Jewish citizens, most of whom have lived in the land for many generations longer than Jewish Israeli citizens, have no ownership and no national home in the land of their ancestors.  
In an editorial about the Nation-State law, “The Apartheid Prime Minister,” Haaretz (July 30, 2018) declared: “The vote on the law updated the fault line in Israel: the discrimination camp vs. the equality camp; the supporters of apartheid against the supporters of democracy. It is true that Israel’s Arab citizens have been discriminated against since the state’s establishment by the governments on both the left and right. But liberal basic laws and High Court of Justice rulings during the past generation advanced the drive toward equality and integrating the minority, which it is now seeking to destroy.”  
Haaretz concludes: ”The opposition, now led by Tzipi Livni, must unite, as it did in the vote on the Nation-State law and present the public with a strong, simple message: equality. There is no more appropriate foundation for Israel’s future as a prosperous democratic society. It must not be allowed to rip the Declaration of Independence to shreds and turn Israel into a whitewashed version of the occupation regime in the territories.”  
American Jews, even before the passage of the Nation-State law, were increasingly alienated from an increasingly illiberal Israel. An opinion poll published in June shows deep divisions between Israeli and American Jews. The survey of the American Jewish Committee found that 58% of American Jews favor the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but only 44% of Israelis approved the idea. The two communities also differ sharply on matters of religion and state, particularly on the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over religious affairs in Israel.  
No separation of religion and state  
The vast majority of American Jews identify as either Reform or Conservative, the more liberal streams of Judaism. In Israel, where there is no separation of religion and state, non-Orthodox rabbis are forbidden by law to perform weddings, preside over funerals or conduct conversions. American Jews overwhelmingly support religious freedom and separation of religion and state. Israel, quite to the contrary, is a theocracy. There is no such thing as civil marriage. If a Jew and non-Jew wish to marry, they must leave the country to do so. On one of the most contentious issues, regarding mixed gender prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, 73% of American Jews expressed support, compared with just 42% of Israelis.  
In another recent survey, only a minority of Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area believe a Jewish state is important and only a third sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. When 18-34 year olds were asked if they were “very attached” to Israel, only 11% said yes. Part of the reason for this alienation is Israel’s retreat from democratic values, its 51-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and intolerance and racism which is growing in the Israeli society.  
This alienation from Israel has accelerated in the wake of the passage of the Nation-State law. The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, issued a rare rebuke to Israel, criticizing the Nation-State law as well as the Orthodox monopoly on religious life. Writing in The New York Times (Aug. 14, 2018) with the headline, “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are,” he notes that, “For many Israelis, Jews, and supporters of Israel, the last year has been a challenging one. In the summer of 2017, Israel’s government withdrew from an agreement that would have created an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall and proposed a strict conversion law that impinges on the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. This summer, the Knesset passed a law that denies equal rights cases to same-sex couples. A day later came the nation-state law, which correctly reaffirms that Israel is a Jewish state, but it also damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian, and Muslim citizens. Last month, a Conservative rabbi was detained for the alleged crime of performing a non-Orthodox wedding ceremony in Israel. In several municipalities, attempts were made to disrupt secular life by closing convenience stores on the Sabbath. These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.”  
“This is not who we wish to be”  
In conclusion, Lauder has this message for Israel: “… as a loving brother, I ask Israel’s government to listen to the voices of protest and outrage being heard in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. As president of the World Jewish Congress, I call upon Israeli leaders to rethink their destructive actions … This is not who we are, and this is not who we wish to be. This is not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren, and the family of nations …”  
David Rothkopf, former editor of Foreign Policy, and a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, was once a fervent supporter of Israel and Zionism. Now, he declares that, “For American Jews, we have gone from a duty to support Israel to a duty to question Israel, to a duty to oppose Israel. This (Nation-State) law did that. … How many abuses must take place? How many laws like this that claim racism as the national character and ethnic purity as its goal? … At some point my duty as an American (and as a Jew) is to actively oppose an ethno-nationalist regime that is systematically undermining the human rights of people within its borders and threatening peace and international values.”  
Once, Rothkopf said, Israel was “in his heart,” but this is no longer true because of its increasingly racist identity. A few years ago, Rothkopf published an exchange with his college roommate, Michael Oren, who later emigrated to Israel and became Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. In this exchange, Rothkopf declared that Zionism “was exactly the wrong response to history.” Instead, he argued, “The best protection (as the United States has demonstrated) is to institutionalize the concept of tolerance and diversity and to work tirelessly to ensure that the powerful impulses to segregate and divide are quashed. It is not easy. But it has made the U.S. the most successful experiment in cultural diversity in history.”  
Transformation of American Judaism  
American Judaism is, in many ways, undergoing a transformation, slowly abandoning its embrace of Zionism, which came only in response to the Holocaust, and returning to the path it had embarked upon from its earliest days in America — stressing Judaism’s universal moral and ethical values, rejecting the idea of a return to Palestine, and the notion of Jews as a “nation,” rather than a religious community.  
In an article entitled “How America’s Jews Learned to Be Liberal,” (New York Times, Aug. 19, 2018), Steven R. Weismann, author of the forthcoming The Chosen Wars: How Judaism Became An American Religion, writes: ”The most significant change in Judaism was its untethering from the ancient tradition of praying for an altogether human messiah to deliver the Jew back to Jerusalem, restore the ancient temple destroyed in the year A.D. 70 and re-establish the House of David to rule over Jews in their ancient land of Zion, as prophesied in the Bible.”  
In 1841, the Jews of Charleston, South Carolina, then the largest Jewish community in the U.S., rebuilt Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue after a fire and installed an organ. The new building, America’s first Reform temple, posted Maimonides’ main principles, but eliminated the ones about going back to Zion. Rabbi Gustav Poznanski, declared at the dedication: “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our fathers defended with their lives that temple, that city and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city and this land.”  
Playing a redemptive role  
The American Jewish community, as it emerged in the 19th century, is described in these terms by Weismann:: “The Jews continued to be drawn to the concept of an era of redemption as foretold by the ancient prophets, a time when the wolf would lie down with the lamb. The difference was that while Jews prayed for such a prospect, they increasingly understood that it was up to humans to work to achieve it. In this, American Jews were influenced by the mainstream Protestantism of the Second Great Awakening, the Transcendentalists and others who substituted human agency for God’s work. Increasingly, Jews in America saw themselves as playing a redemptive role. ‘We are deeply convinced that Israel has been called by God to be the messiah of the nations and approach truth and virtue on earth,’ as Chicago’s Sinai Congregation put it in the 1860s, using ‘Israel’ as a reference to the Jewish people …”  
In 1869, Reform Jews in the U.S. made the point that, “The messianic aim of Israel (i.e., the Jewish people) is not the restoration of a Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of earth, but the Union of the children of God, so as to realize the unity of all national creatures and their call to moral sanctification.”  
In 1885, another Reform group, meeting in Pittsburgh, declared: ”We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any laws concerning the Jewish state.”  
At the time the Balfour Declaration was being discussed in the aftermath of World War I, Jewish opposition in the U.S. to creating a Jewish “homeland” of any kind in Palestine was widespread. On July 4, 1918, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the national organization representing Reform rabbis, argued against the Balfour Declaration and the premise that Jews were a people without a country. In fact, they declared, Jews were “and of right ought to be, at home in all lands.”  
The Mission of the Jew is to witness to God all over the world  
According to the CCAR: “The ideal of the Jew is not the establishment of a Jewish state — not the reassertion of Jewish nationality, which long has been outgrown. We believe our survival as a people is dependent upon the assertion and the maintenance of our historic religious role and not upon the acceptance of Palestine as a homeland of the Jewish people. The mission of the Jew is to witness to God all over the world.”  
Henry Morgenthau, Woodrow Wilson’s most recent ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and one of his most prominent Jewish supporters, wrote a 1,000 word statement in The New York Times opposing the Balfour Declaration. He declared: “The world is now moving away from the emphasis hitherto placed upon extreme nationalism … What an error it would be at the very time when the primary message to the world of the Jewish people and their religion should be one of peace, brotherhood and the international mind to set up a limited national state and thereby appear to create a physical boundary to their religious influence.”  
Rabbi Samuel Schulman of New York’s Temple Beth El, in his Rosh Hashana sermon of 1918, declared: “0ur destiny is not to become a little oriental people in Palestine. It is rather to persist in the world as Israel, priest of God: to witness to God’s congregation in the whole world, and therefore to be a part of every nation, abdicating political nationality as a thing too little.”  
Opposition to Zionism  
In 1919, a petition was presented to President Wilson which reflected the opposition of most American Jews to Zionism and its claim to Palestine. The petition asserted that, “The overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a Jewish homeland in Palestine … We object to the political segregation of the Jews because it is an error to assume that the bond uniting them is of a national character. They are bound by two factors. First, the bond of common religious beliefs and aspirations and, secondly, the bonds of common traditions, customs and experiences … Nothing in their status suggests that they form in any real sense a separate nationalistic unit.”  
Those signing this petition included Rep. Julius Klein of California; Henry Morganthau; Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas; E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange; R.H. Macy’s Jesse L. Straus; New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, and a host of other prominent American Jews.  
In a speech to the Menorah Society dinner in Dec. 1917, Chief Judge Irving Lehman, brother of New York Governor Herbert H. Lehman, told the audience: “I cannot recognize that the Jews as such constitute a nation in any sense in which that word is recognized in political science, or that a national basis is a possible concept for modern Judaism. We Jews in America, bound to the Jews of other lands by our common faith, constituting our common inheritance, cannot as American citizens feel any bond to them as members of a nation, for nationally we are Americans and Americans only, and in political and civic matters, we cannot recognize other ties. We must therefore look for the maintenance of Judaism to those spiritual concepts which constitute Judaism.”  
Impact of Nazism  
Later, in the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, Jewish groups in the U.S. reconciled themselves with Zionism. The older, Reform Jewish philosophy was, however, kept alive by the American Council for Judaism. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe points out that, “When the Reformists first encountered Zionism, they vehemently rejected the idea of redefining Judaism as nationalism and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. However, their anti-Zionist stance shifted after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. In the second half of the 20th century, the majority among them created a new Reform movement in the U.S. … However, a large number of Jews left the new movement and set up the American Council for Judaism, which reminded the world … that Zionism was still a minority view among Jews, and remained loyal to the old Reformist notions about Zionism.”  
Jonathan Sarna, a Brandeis University historian and author of the book American Judaism, says that, “Everything the American Council for Judaism prophesied — dual loyalty, nationalism being evil — has come to pass.” He states that, “It’s certainly the case that if the Holocaust underscored the problems of Jewish life in the Diaspora, recent years have highlighted the point that Zionism is no panacea.”  
The period since Israel was created in 1948, and in which the organized American Jewish community rallied around it and, in many cases, made supporting it almost a substitute religion, represented a dramatic departure from the path along which American Judaism had been moving. Indeed, the growth of debate and division which we are now witnessing reflects the characteristics of American Judaism before 1948.  
The American Jewish conflict over Israel  
This point is made by Professor Dov Waxman of Northeastern University in his book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel. He writes: “A historic change has been taking place in the American Jewish relationship with Israel … Israel is fast becoming a source of division rather than unity for American Jewry … A new era of American Jewish conflict over Israel is replacing the old era of solidarity … This echoes earlier debates about Zionism that occurred before 1948. Then, as now, there were fierce disagreements among American Jews and the American Jewish establishment … It was only after Israel’s founding that the community consensus came to dominate American Jewish politics. Thus, from a historical perspective, the pro-Israel consensus that once reigned within the American Jewish community is the aberration rather than the rule. Jewish division on Israel is historically the norm.”  
Beyond this, in Waxman’s view, the overwhelming majority of American Jews, while supporting Israel and wishing it well, were never really Zionists. He writes that, “Classical Zionism … has never had much relevance or appeal to American Jewry. Indeed, the vast majority of American Jews reject the basic elements of classical Zionism — that Diaspora Jews live in exile, that Jewish life in Israel is superior to life in the Diaspora, and that Diaspora Jewish life is doomed to eventually disappear. American Jews do not think that they are in exile and they do not regard Israel as their homeland … For many American Jews, America is more than just home, it is itself a kind of Zion, an ‘almost promised land.’ Zionism has never succeeded in winning over the majority of American Jews.”  
The early European Zionists appear to have had no understanding of the American experience, where from the start of the nation, the First Amendment guaranteed religious freedom to all. It is almost certain that Theodor Herzl never read the arguments set forth by Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a forerunner to the First Amendment, passed by the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 16, 1786. In America, religious freedom was a principle adopted by the majority. In Israel, the Jewish majority seems to have adopted a quite different philosophy, one which alienates American Jews and gives the impression that Jews only promoted religious freedom in the West because they were a minority, and it served their interests, not out of principle.  
Embracing Judaism’s universal moral and ethical tradition  
The path Judaism in America was on before the interruption of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust was one of embracing the universal moral and ethical tradition of the prophets and making itself an important religious voice in the free and open American society. The temporary embrace by many of the nationalist ethos seems now to be coming to an end. Judaism, as a religion of universal values, has much to offer America and the world. As a form of tribal nationalism it rejects the unique contribution Judaism has made — and can make again. American Judaism, let us hope, is slowly finding its way out of the politicization of recent years, which has moved it away from its essential insight into man and God. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.