THE BLOG
01/20/2015 04:49 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2015

Don't Let the Religious Nationalists Threaten Israel's Capacity to Be a Haven for Endangered Jews

The recent terrorist murders of four Jews in the French kosher grocery, in conjunction with other incidents in France, have led a number of French Jews to consider the option of moving to Israel where they have been assured a welcome by Prime Minister Netanyahu. This is an option that did not exist for Jews until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. Since its founding, Israel has been a haven for millions of Jews fleeing oppression from Arab countries in the Middle East where they were no longer welcome after years of living there, from the former Soviet Union and from other parts of the world where they felt unsafe. Israel was able to absorb these refugees and allocate large-scale resources to find homes, jobs and schooling for them, all the while growing financially stronger. In doing so it is realizing the long standing Zionist dream of a Jewish state that is a sanctuary for beleaguered Jews anywhere in the world.

When I was growing up in America in the 1930's and 40's, this option of a haven for Jews did not exist. Even when it was clear that Jews in Germany and other parts of Europe were under threat of total annihilation, the United States, like other major countries in the world, refused to take them in and offer them a safe haven. Of course, that was an important element in the international support for the 1947 UN Resolution 181, calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. And the essence of that state was that it was democratic. As the Basic Laws of Israel state: all Israeli citizens are to be treated equally.

But the Jewish nature of that state is now threatened both within Israel, by the religious and other ultra nationalists, and outside of Israel, by Palestinians who have given up any hope for a separate Palestinian state and call for a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state.

The Israeli nationalists and their supporters are driving a program that involves expanding Jewish settlements and extending direct Israeli control and jurisdiction over increasing areas of the West Bank. Such is the plan openly laid out by Naftali Bennett head of Israel's Jewish Home party, in his Op Ed article in the New York Times (Nov. 5, 2014) and elsewhere. It is a plan whose ultimate aim is to incorporate all or large parts of the West Bank into Israel proper. If Israel were to offer full citizenship to the Palestinians living in those areas, adding them to the Arab-Israelis already citizens of Israel, they would constitute a powerful voting bloc, representing a large proportion of potential Israeli voters. Under those circumstances, there is a clear threat that Israel will no longer remain the kind of haven it has been, willing to undertake huge costs to absorb Jews anywhere in the world who may seek to move there.

Unhappily, an increasing number of Palestinians, particularly younger age groups, have concluded that they will be better off in a bi-national state as part of Israel than continuing the struggle for their own independent state. As a part of Israel, they will, of course, seek the full benefits of citizenship, including the economic programs now available to Israeli citizens that would be far more rewarding to them than the lives they lead at present. The actions of the Israeli ultra-nationalists are playing directly into the hands of these Palestinian groups.

Do I really believe that Mr. Bennett and his allies intend for the Palestinians who are living on the lands to be annexed to Israel to be treated as full citizens of Israel? Of course not. They intend to move the Palestinian off their lands to Jordan or elsewhere or to treat them as second-class denizens with limited rights. In doing so, they are prepared to undermine the democratic nature of the state. That represents the other threat to Israel: that it will be treated by the world as a pariah state, subjected to economic and other sanction the way South Africa was treated during its apartheid years. Such an attack would seriously threaten Israel's ability to continue as a haven to absorb Jews. And it would be naïve not to recognize that the pressure on Jews in other countries would be far greater simply because of the Israeli actions. Moreover, it should be recognized that for those Jews, particularly in the United States, who are looking to Israel to provide the connection for the next generations to Judaism, an undemocratic Israel transferring Palestinians from their land and homes would be a major disappointment.

The Israel elections will be held on March 17th. One message should be clear. The religious nationalist and ultra nationalist parties' platforms and plans are a direct threat to all that Zionism has stood for - creating a land for the Jewish people that will always be a safe haven for them.

Robert K. Lifton, a businessman and political activist is a Founder, former Chair and current Board member of the Israel Policy Forum. His memoir "An Entrepreneur's Journey: Stories From A Life In Business And Personal Diplomacy" was published by Author House in 2012.