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Israel’s nation-state law gets backing from some U.S. Orthodox leaders
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Israel’s nation-state law gets backing from some U.S. Orthodox leaders

In face of liberal criticism, rabbis say measure declaring Israel a Jewish homeland ‘codifies what we all know’

A protest against the “Jewish Nation-State Bill” in Tel Aviv on July 14. The pink sign reads in Arabic and Hebrew, “This is the home of all of us.” (Jack Guez/ AFP/Getty Images)
A protest against the “Jewish Nation-State Bill” in Tel Aviv on July 14. The pink sign reads in Arabic and Hebrew, “This is the home of all of us.” (Jack Guez/ AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s new nation-state law that declares Israel to be the “national home of the Jewish people” continued to come under attack from some liberal American-Jewish leaders and academics this week, but several Orthodox Jewish leaders interviewed here expressed support for it.

“Our community feels the law did not carve out any new territory and reaffirmed our understanding of Israel,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the world’s largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis. “Israel is the fulfillment of our dreams as a land promised to the Jews. The law does not compromise and should not compromise the rights of minorities in the state.”

The National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for 146 Orthodox congregations with approximately 25,000-member families in North America, issued a statement applauding Israel’s Knesset for adopting the law that “codifies what we all know to be the fundamental principles and rudimentary facts relative to the deep-seated and longstanding link that the Jewish people and Israel have shared for thousands of years.

“Israel is indeed the ‘national home of the Jewish people’ and anyone attempting to deny that basic premise is turning a blind eye to history and disregarding what is an elemental truth.”

However, the Orthodox Union, the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in the United States, said only that it “respects the decision made by the Knesset’s majority.”

“It is the longstanding position of the Orthodox Union that salient issues of law and policy for the State of Israel are best determined by the government and citizens of Israel through the state’s democratic process and institutions,” it explained.

Similar to a constitutional amendment, the change in Israel’s Basic Laws asserts also that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, that national self-determination in the State of Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” that Hebrew is the state’s language, and that Arabic — previously classified as an official language — now has simply a “special status in the state.”

Also among the law’s supporters is Rabbi Avi Weiss, rabbi-in-residence of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-the Bayit in the Bronx, who said that although he is a “strong supporter of the bill, even supporters say it might require some amendments to make sure all citizens of Israel are treated equally.”

According to the Jerusalem Post, 60 percent of Jews and 73 percent of Israeli Arabs believe the law should be amended to include a guarantee of equality between all communities. And the paper said that 58 percent of Israelis support the law while 34 percent oppose it.

Weiss pointed out that he is a “strong supporter of Yehuda and Shomron [the West Bank], and I have gone to an Arab village after a mosque there was burned down and I have reached out to the Arab family whose son was brutally murdered after the killing of three Israeli boys. A strong sense of Jewish nationalism does not contradict universal consciousness but is a prerequisite to it.”

He added that he is “very troubled” by the name calling he has heard surrounding the bill: “Supporters are calling detractors non-patriots and detractors are calling supporters racists — and I think that kind of language has to stop.”

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, questioned why there should be such opposition to the law.

“Do these people think ‘Hatikva’ shouldn’t be Israel’s national anthem?” he asked. “Do they think there should not be a law of return that only applies to Jews? Do they think it is wrong that Hebrew should be an official language and that Arabic is not an official language anymore? What about English? The law is just a recognition that Israel is a Jewish country — that is how it was founded. I’m not saying that everything is 100 percent perfect, but the law codifies basic understandings from the founding of the state. It is a place that Jews can come, there will be a Jewish star on its flag and Jewish Independence Day is a holiday, as are the religious Jewish holidays.… People are overreacting in an extraordinary way. On the ground, I’m not sure it has changed virtually anything.”

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, questioned why there was so much fuss over the Knesset declaring Israel a Jewish state when 83 other countries have official religions, 136 have incorporated religion into their national anthems, and 64 incorporated religion into their flags.

And he noted that Northwestern University International Law Professor Eugene Kontorovich wrote that the Israeli law is similar to, and even more liberal, than that of many European constitutions. And he said it does not change the fact that Israel does not have official religions, while seven European countries have constitutionally enshrined state religions.

Klein asked whether those who have been critical of the new law have been critical of the Palestinian Authority for imposing capital punishment on those Arabs who sell their homes to Jews and paying Arabs money for murdering Jews.

“It is disgraceful that these Jews publicly condemn Israel because it simply gives ammunition to the anti-Semites and Israel
haters.”

The adoption of the nation-state law comes at a time when the country has its most right-wing government in history. That too was reflected in the Jerusalem Post poll, which found that 85 percent of rightists support the law and 75 percent of leftists oppose it. And today in Israel, religious Orthodoxy and right-wing politics tend to go hand-in-hand.

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