New Knesset Bill Magnifies the Attack on Democracy in Israel

Here in the United States, we have become only too familiar with the paranoid rantings of those who warn of “creeping sharia.” Sharia, of course, is the body of religious Muslim law. Neo-conservatives and their fellow travelers have had a good deal of impact scaring Americans about this non-existent threat.

Thankfully, numerous analysts and reporters, such as Matt Duss at Think Progress, have done outstanding work exposing this fear-mongering propaganda for what it is.

From Meretz USA's web site

Maybe, though, it’s time we American Jews, and our Israeli counterparts, woke up to the real threat in Israel of “creeping halakha.”

The Knesset is considering a bill now that would change Israel’s Basic Law defining Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” to promote Israel’s “Jewish character” as superior to its democratic nature.

In other words, as Likud MK Ze’ev Elkin, a leading figure in the anti-democracy movement in Israel, explains, the new law would frame “the state as the Jewish nation state in (court) ruling(s) in situations in which the Jewish character of the state clashes with its democratic character.”

Can we be any more blatantly anti-democratic than that? Actually, yes.

Because the bill contains another provision, one which would provide that “If the court sees a legal question requiring a ruling, and finds no solution in legislation, custom or clear analogy, it will rule in light of the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace in Jewish heritage.” In other words, as Ha’aretz puts it, the “…clause states that Jewish law will be a source of inspiration to the legislature and the courts.”

It may well be that this clause will not be part of the law that will be passed. It does have the whiff of a clause that was put in to stir up controversy so it can be removed and the rest of the legislation will be less targeted.

But even if that is the case, and one hopes that it is, the inclusion of this clause is a warning to us all of the increasing religious influence in the Knesset. This is a cause for grave concern for a number of reasons.

As Jews, we must all be concerned that the world’s only Jewish state would represent not a national state, but a religious one. We, better than any other people, know the dangers of religious states. Contrary to the dissembling on the right, most progressive Jews are very concerned about human rights abuses in theocratic countries, including, though not limited to, Muslim countries (we just don’t like it when those concerns are cynically used to shield Israel, or other countries, from legitimate criticism of their own human rights violations).

And it is obviously true that a theocratic Israel (and despite what some of its detractors say, it is not a theocracy, though its character as an ethnocracy is certainly emerging clearly) will not be able to compromise for peace, whereas a broad government that could include religious parties (as Israel is now and as a Palestinian unity government would be) can, at least in theory.

If one issue has always spoken to American Jews throughout our history in this country it is the separation of church and state. We know we live in a majority Christian country, where we are a small minority. Only that separation guarantees our protection from discrimination.

Israel’s Muslim and Christian communities, as well as those of other faiths, desperately need the same protection.

This has been a core principle of Jewish life ever since the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment. Are we going to allow it to be abandoned in Israel? It is unthinkable, and it is an issue that every Jew, from Zionist to anti-Zionist, Israeli or Diaspora, has an enormous stake in.

There’s more in this loathsome bill. It “allows” other ethnicities to set up “separate communities.” Need we even discuss the implications of that?

And the bill would make Hebrew Israel’s only official language, removing Arabic and English.

As Noam Sheizaf at 972 Magazine puts it, this bill aims to “strip Israel of even the appearance of democracy…  this new bill takes the game to a whole new level, by formally making 20 percent of Israel’s citizens—a native population that predates the state—as second class  citizens.”

And, as if we needed more cause for concern, 20 of 28 Knesset members from the so-called “centrist opposition” party, Kadima support this heinous offense to decency and the values for which Jews have fought throughout the modern era. It is also an affront to the values espoused by virtually every founder of Zionism, from Ahad Ha’am to Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Many Jews these days are deciding, understandably, to disassociate themselves from an Israel that is sliding into fascism. But like it or now, Israel is a major part of the Jewish people. Israel may have the right to chart its own course, but it doesn’t have the right to take actions that will affect every Jew in the world without hearing what the rest of us have to say. Hopefully, more of us, from a wide swath of political beliefs, will raise a voice.

UPDATE: The Abraham Fund has posted a statement about this bill here.