Israel’s democracy is flourishing. Can world Jewry respect it?

The relationship between the Jewish Diaspora and Israel preceded Israel as a state. It would be safe to say that the majority of the builders, in both the physical and the spiritual sense, came from the Diaspora. No one can dispute the financial and political assistance that the nascent state received from the older and stronger Jewish sister-communities around the globe. The ongoing philanthropy was on a scale the world has rarely seen before.

Now at 70, Israel has emerged as an independent country. She maintains a healthy and vibrant economy and an even more vibrant, oft raucous, democratic system. Every day, Israelis debate – in the media, Knesset, academia, or café – a multitude of issues regarding Israel’s past, present and future. We know how to make hard decisions. Reality in Israel dictates that we do so on a daily basis.

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As a young country, we are paving our own new path. Recently, the Knesset passed the Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People Basic Law. For the first time Israel passed into law the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and recognized itself as a Jewish state. This should have been celebrated by Jews around the world much in the same way they celebrated the country’s establishment 70 years ago, however, it was not. What we got instead was a downpour of criticism and lectures of doom for our democracy.

So let us assure you: our democracy is very dear to us and we don’t plan to do away with it. Nothing in the Basic Law is intended to change the equal social or political rights of all Israeli citizens. Indeed, the word equality doesn’t appear in the text, but it doesn’t have to – it is already enshrined in our other Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, which holds the same constitutional rank. The charade as if something in the language will injure Druze or any other minority is misinformed at best, and disingenuous at worst. Take two minutes and read the law. This argument can only be put forward by those who either didn’t read the law, or did and chose to distort it.

Here are some other clarifications. The Arabic language was not “demoted.” True, Arabic was an official language during the British Mandate; but Israel never adopted that status into law. It wasn’t as if, for instance, you could file a lawsuit or almost any other official document in Arabic prior to the recent law’s passage. Still, the law clarifies that it should not be construed as changing the status of the language (now with constitutional status). In other words, if you put your trust in Israel’s Supreme Court, let them decide what that status was previously and keep it unchanged.

On Jewish settlements, some more background is necessary. In the 1990s, Israel’s Ministry of Defense thought it was necessary to build Jewish towns in the Negev and Galilee. Bedouins had populated these regions and the government wanted to prevent them from becoming isolated from the rest of the country, or worse, becoming a terrorist safe haven. In 2000, Israel’s Supreme Court declared this move unconstitutional on grounds of discrimination. However, in previous and later decisions the court ruled that Arabs towns discriminating against Jews are fine. It seems only fair that Jews should enjoy similar right as other groups, especially when security matters are involved.

Another misconception is that the law impedes efforts in Israel to foster greater Jewish pluralism. This is an argument put forward by those attempting to widen the spat between Israelis and the Diaspora.

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The truth is, the law makes it a constitutional value for Israel to strengthen its bond with Jews worldwide and maintain the cultural, historical and religious heritage in the Diaspora, regardless of denomination.

But let’s be honest, if it weren’t the Nation-State Law, it would have been the law on surrogate mothers, or some other law that makes some in the Diaspora shift uneasily in their seats. We would be hearing the same criticism and threats that the last threads holding us together are over strained.

Here’s the reality: our relationship has changed. Israel has become more independent; some of you have turned more liberal. Some decisions that we view as crucial and that are made here by our very democratic system – the Knesset held tens of hearings on the Nation-State Law, it passed with a majority of 62 votes – are viewed by you as abomination.

The door is always open for you to join us here and cast your vote to make a change; it says so in the Nation-State Law. If you choose to remain abroad, we understand and respect your decision. We are willing to respect your right to your opinion and make the effort to bridge the gap – we just made it our (constitutional) obligation. Are you willing to do the same?

The writer is deputy director of the Kohelet Policy Forum.

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