Experts Urge American Jews to Support Democratic Norms in Israel

Written by Rachel Kohn and Anis Modi on . Posted in Community News

Even members of the Jewish community for whom civil rights or religious pluralism in Israel take a back seat to regional security and Palestinian terrorism have reason to follow recent developments in the country with concern, according to Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Washington Ron Halber.

“A lot of American Jews are concerned about Israel’s perception and Israeli policy ... The perception, even if it is overplayed, of the erosion of democratic norms in Israel is a tremendous problem for the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel,” said Halber. While the U.S. does have relationships with multiple countries that do not share its values, common values and commitment to democratic norms both play a critical role in the close diplomatic, military, and economic relationship between the U.S. and Israel, he said.

“Anything that occurs in Israel that creates doubt in the minds of American Jews that those values are shared, reduces their enthusiasm for being politically active and providing the bipartisan support key to maintaining a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The Surrogacy Bill

On July 9, the Israeli parliament’s Labor, Health, and Welfare Committee passed a number of amendments enabling single women and women unable to become pregnant for medical reasons to apply for financial support from the state to have a child by a surrogate.

At the same time, a measure was rejected that would have extended the right to that financial support to single men — and, by extension, male couples, since same-sex marriage is not authorized under Israeli law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vote against the measure came two days after he publicly stated he would support it. Defending his vote, the prime minister said the entire bill would have been blocked in parliament if he’d insisted on state support for surrogacy for men.

According to Michael Koplow, a DC resident and policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, there is a constituency in Israel, not unlike that in America, which supports nationalist and socially conservative policies. “The added wrinkle in Israel is that the need to form coalitions creates the ability for smaller parties to make demands that would not be met in a two-party system like we have here,” he said.

The Nation-State Law

The “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” commonly referred to as the Nation-State Law, was approved by the Knesset July 19. The law aims to enshrine Israel’s Jewish identity into basic law, according to the language of the bill. Israel does not have a constitution, but Israeli basic laws are similar to constitutional amendments, requiring a supermajority in the legislature to both pass and amend them.

Among its clauses, the Nation-State Law says that the right to self-determination in the country is reserved for the Jewish people, while also declaring Hebrew to be the country’s only official language and a unified Jerusalem as its capital.

Previously, the country did not have an official language set by law, with both Hebrew and Arabic recognized by the courts as de facto official languages. A 2002 Supreme Court decision required local municipalities to use Hebrew and Arabic on official signage and legal documents.

The Nation-State Law has been controversial since its introduction in 2015, drawing the ire of politicians across party lines and of several minority groups — most notably the Druze community, who serve in the army but are not Jewish.

“There are unending attempts to rescind the definition of the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people,” said Netanyahu at a meeting with local Druze council heads July 29. “We legislated the Nation-State Law in order to ensure that Israel will remain the national state of our people — this is the purpose of the state’s existence.”

“The law does not detract at all from the individual rights of anybody. It is designed to make the necessary legal balance, the time for which has come, in order to ensure the character of the State of Israel,” he said.

Conservative Rabbi Arrested

On July 19, Israeli Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun was brought in for questioning by Haifa police following a complaint filed by the Haifa Rabbinical Court. Rabbi Haiyun was charged with performing marriages without reporting them to the Rabbinate, as well as marrying people who are ineligible to marry each other in accordance with Jewish law.

Rabbinical courts have exclusive authority over marriage registrations under Israeli law. Rabbi Haiyun was ordained by the Conservative movement, which is not recognized by the Rabbinate, so his weddings could not be registered under Israeli law either. The charges stemmed from one specific wedding he officiated, after the Rabbinate refused to marry the couple because they had ruled the bride was a mamzer (someone born from certain relationships forbidden in the Torah and therefore prohibited from marrying someone other than a fellow mamzer). Six months later, the Rabbinate reversed its decision about the bride, but still filed a complaint against the rabbi for the performance of the ceremony.

Thought Police

In a story with a local connection, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported that pro-Israel philanthropist Meyer Koplow (chair of Brandeis University’s board of trustees and father of the above-mentioned Michael Koplow) believed he was subjected to questioning at Ben Gurion International Airport on July 15 because security personnel found a brochure in his luggage titled “This Week in Palestine.”

Meyer Koplow had participated in a trip to the West Bank with Encounter Programs, an organization that offers Jewish-American influencers the chance to meet Palestinian civil society leaders and hear their perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He picked up the brochure in a Bethlehem hotel lobby, he said; according to Encounter’s website, the program Meyer Koplow participated in included time in Bethlehem, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah.

“The most disturbing question [the security officer] asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories,” Koplow told JTA. “What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”

A day later, his son Michael took to Twitter to share his view of the incident, calling it “a perfectly sad microcosm of everything wrong with the way Israel treats information as a threat and American Jews as objects of suspicion.”

American Jews
Have a Role to Play

Recent legislation “should be viewed as an alarm for everyone who cares about maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic character,” said Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (“Be Free Israel”).The grassroots organization advocates for cultural and religious pluralism and respect for the country’s founding principles as a democratic Zionist state.

“I believe that we can also be optimistic, as we are seeing that the Israeli public is reacting fiercely to these anti-democratic initiatives,” said Keidar. “We are honored to have great partners in the DC metropolitan area that are fighting the good fight with Israelis on the ground, and I do believe that the right thing to do is to support those efforts specifically during our difficult times.” He expressed gratitude to the Morningstar Foundation, the Joseph and Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the New Israel Fund, the Kathryn Ames Foundation, and the Aviv Foundation for their support.

“It should be a priority for American Jews to not only make our preferences known and our voices heard on Israel issues,” said Michael Koplow, “but to understand what is taking place there so that we can speak cogently and in an informed way about developments and not fall prey to the extremists on either side who view Israel as always right or always wrong.”

Israel’s moral compass is not solely dependent on American Jewry. Leaders from political, military, law enforcement, and other sectors in Israel have spoken out against the Nation-State Law, for instance. On Aug. 1, a committee established by Netanyahu — chaired by Director General Yoav Hurvitz of the Prime Minister’s Office and including Druze members of Knesset, council heads, military reserve officers, and Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif — announced they’d created an outline for similarly enshrining the legal status and rights of anyone who served in the Israeli military, regardless of race or religion.

Halber pointed out that American Jews do not vote or pay taxes in Israel, rightfully limiting their pull on issues of security and economics, but he proposed that American Jews organize a body to lobby Knesset about issues that impact world Jewry.

“I don’t think the American Jewish community has done a good enough job of explaining to Israeli Jews why the nation-state bill, or the arrest of a Conservative rabbi, or denying surrogacy to a gay couple, play a role in hurting relations between the American Jewish community and Israeli Jews,” he said.

While the Nation-State Law may have received the most attention locally on social media, “different people have been upset about different things that have occurred, and I don’t think one eclipses the other,” he said.

“We just had Tisha B’Av, and we know from Tisha B’Av that when the Jewish community is divided, when we have senseless hatred, bad things happen,” said Halber. “Israel is a strong enough state and the Jewish people are a strong enough people that we can simultaneously wrestle with issues of security and issues of pluralism.”

 By Rachel Kohn and Anis Modi


Rachel Kohn is editor in chief of Kol HaBirah.
Anis Modi is a staff reporter for Kol Habirah. Born and raised in Israel, he currently writes for several DC-based publications while pursuing his MA degree at American University.