Last week the Israeli cabinet approved a new law that will require all non-Jewish immigrants applying for citizenship to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish State. Israelis across the political spectrum voiced outrage. Carlos Strenger in Ha'aretz wrote that the bill will only make "Arabs feeling even less at home in Israel." Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, a Labor party member and hardly a raving lefty, described the bill as carrying a "whiff of fascism." Over the last weekend in Tel Aviv, thousands marched in protest.
Despite the commitment of most American Jews to basic civil liberties, freedom of expression and democracy, however, the major institutions of the American Jewish community have remained muted in their response to the proposed bill. While the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League issued responses that expressed concern, both refrained from expressing opposition. Amidst widespread outcry in Israel, why the relative silence here in the US?
The answer is that a gnawing rift runs through the heart of the American Jewish community, a deep divide into which this bill silently falls.
I, like many in the American Jewish community, am a Zionist: I am committed to an Israel that is and will continue to be the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.
My Zionism, however, is not independent of my Jewish commitments to justice and equality. I was taught that central to the Jewish tradition is the obligation to stand to with those who suffer persecution, those on the margins.
Many of my fellow students at my liberal-minded Liberal Arts college claim that these twin commitments - to justice and to Israel, to Zionism and to equality and democracy - cannot be held together. They argue that the very idea of a Jewish democracy is incoherent. I have argued back, countless times, that it is possible for Israel to be both democratic and Jewish. Indeed, I say, for Israel to be a truly Jewish homeland, it must grant full and equal rights to all of those who dwell within its borders, and reach out in peace and justice to all its neighbors.
For my interlocutors, the loyalty oath provides powerful evidence. The true intent of the bill is exposed by its plainly discriminatory nature: in order to avoid the delicate issue of the potential immigration of anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox Jews (who would never sign the oath), it applies only to non-Jews. This bill will serve as a legally codified reminder to Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens that they are second-class. One would hope that the American Jewish community, given its experience with McCarthy-era politics and the Civil Rights struggle, would speak out loudly and forcefully in opposition to such a blatantly anti-democratic bill.
The irony is that the logic of those that claim that democratic and Zionist commitments are mutually exclusive resembles the implicit logic of the dominant institutions of the American Jewish community. For decades now, those organizations have erected a wall between the Jewish commitment to justice and the Jewish commitment to Israel.
Within the world of Jewish social justice organizations, the Torah's repeated demand to "welcome the stranger" is paramount. Service trips organized by groups like the Jewish Funds for Justice or American Jewish World Service world bring young Jews to work in solidarity with the disenfranchised. Yet these organizations, and most like them, are intentionally silent in addressing Israel and Palestinians.
Within the traditional Pro-Israel camp, on the other hand, democracy is a numerical and procedural matter. Israel is a Jewish democracy because Jews are a majority and there are elections. The conditions of Arab citizens of Israel, who face serious discrimination and inequality, and of Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation, who lack the most basic legal protections in the territories, are peripheral, anecdotal. They are unrelated to Israel's prized position as "the only democracy in the Middle East."
I see the effect of this split on my campus and at universities throughout the country. Within the pro-Israel tent students who draw attention to the troubling character of a bill like the loyalty oath are accused of giving ammunition to those that would de-legitimize the very idea of a Jewish democracy. Meanwhile progressive campus groups committed to the environment, queer rights, anti-racism and other causes are full of Jews who see their politics and Judaism as inextricably linked yet stay away from any discussion of Israel. This landscape should trouble those unequivocally supportive of Israel, those concerned by its policies, as well as those invested in a progressive Jewish political tradition.
When, earlier this summer the Knesset considered a bill that would have given the Orthodox Rabbinate legal authority over all conversions performed in Israel, American Jewish leaders raised their voices in protest. Israel's leaders tucked the bill safely away into piles of bureaucracy and oblivion. "I will not lend my hand to any legislation," declared Netanyahu, "that will cause a split in the Jewish people."
In that case, the potential split was engendered by the question of the Jewish character of Israel. In the case of its democratic character, the split is already there. By bringing our commitments to justice together with our connection to Israel, the students of J Street U, and others like us around the world, are working to build a bridge. It is a bridge built upon the words of Israel's Declaration of Independence, which state that the new nation "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel."
Such words carry great responsibility and serious risk. The prophets were not the most popular folks in their neighborhood. They spoke uncomfortable truths. Yet those inspired by Israel's founding are obligated by the words that brought it into existence. Those words demand that we speak loudly and clearly in opposition to a loyalty oath that, in requiring new citizens to declare allegiance to Israel's Jewish and democratic character, undermines both.