A letter written by typewriter.

Note to Netanyahu: Don't make American Jewish life harder (COMMENTARY)

A letter written by typewriter.

A letter written by typewriter.

(RNS) There is a recurring segment on "The Jimmy Fallon Show" in which the comedian writes sarcastic thank you notes, accompanied by soft music. If world Jewry could adopt Jimmy Fallon's practice, this week's installment would go something like this: "Thank you, Prime Minister Netanyahu, for making life even harder for Jews all over the world.”

I am referring to a bill that is currently before the Israeli Knesset that would declare Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. Many Israeli basic laws use the term “Jewish and democratic,” giving equal weight to both. The new law would enshrine only the Jewish character of the state. In addition, such legislation would no longer recognize Arabic as an official language of the state of Israel.

To which the world, including the Jewish world, might say: Why this, and why now? Isn’t it already manifestly clear that Israel is the Jewish state? Netanyahu argues that there are many anti-Zionists who would quibble with that definition. That is true. But if you really want to know how the world perceives Israel, you might want to consider the increase in vile, violent, international Jew-hatred -- much of which focuses on Israel. Anti-Israelism is the gateway drug to anti-Semitism; no need to remind anyone of the linkages between Jews and Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli politician

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But as much as I worry about the effect that this will have within the Jewish state, I worry more about the effect that this will have on the Jewish street.

The government of Israel is playing with American Jewish fire. If Israel is perceived as being anti-democratic, many American Jews will walk away, or drift away, or simply, passively, no longer care. Anyone who has read the Pew report on Jewish Americans knows that many younger American Jews feel a tenuous connection to Israel.

American Jews predicate their support of Israel not only on ethnic solidarity and history, but on the idea that Israel and the United States share common democratic values. That is how we interpret Israel to ourselves, and to the gentile community, and to American politicians. This is not about “What will the gentiles think?” It’s about “What will the Jews think?” A precipitous action such as the nation-state law would shoot American Jewish lovers of Israel in the foot.

Consider the war against Israel that is raging on American campuses. “Israel Apartheid Week” is a regular feature of campus life. This proposed law would make life infinitely more difficult for American college students, who will not be able to defend it. While some students will understand the nuances -- that this seems to have been a sop to the right-wing elements in Israel’s government -- let’s not be so sure they’ll be able to get those words out in the midst of an ugly screaming match. In any case, most Jewish college students will walk away, or become easy prey for various anti-Israel groups on campus.

Nine hundred years ago, Maimonides based his life work on an experiment: Is it possible to reconcile Judaism with Aristotelian philosophy? He proved that it could be done. Israel has also been an experiment: Is it possible to reconcile Judaism with democracy? It has been proving, all along, that it can be done.

Last week, a Druze policeman, Zidan Nahad Seif, gave his life defending the Jerusalem synagogue in which four rabbis were brutally murdered. Thousands of Israeli Jews, including both President Reuven Rivlin and a contingent from the ultra-Orthodox community that Seif had defended, attended his funeral. Seif was a righteous gentile. The Torah mentions, no less than 36 times, that we should take care of the stranger in our midst. That idea is at the very core of the Israeli commitment to democracy.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Salkin

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Seif’s funeral was Israel at its best. It was the Israel that world Jewry loves, interprets and defends.

It is fair to implore the Jewish state: Don’t blow it. Not for yourselves. And certainly, not for us.

(Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality.)



  1. Salkin fits right into Israelis’ stereotype of American Jews as weak, fearful, whiny, Woody Allen-like nebbishes who put their liberalism ahead of their being Jewish. Salkin might be anything but that, but with this piece, he has fed that stereotype.

    This is much ado about nothing. Netanyahu’s hero is Winston Churchill, one of the most effective speakers for freedom and democracy the world has ever known. Moreover, millions of Americans, myself including, wish someone like Netanyahu were an American leader. He enjoys wide respect among the American people for his powerful words and strong stance against the foes of freedom and the supporters of tyranny and terror.

    Salkin should attend to real issues, among them why his generation in America is losing its kids. If Salkin wants to know why, maybe he and his generation should look in the mirror, not at some convenient scapegoat like Netanyahu.

  2. Leave it to a Christian to have the audacity to tell Jewish people how to identify themselves. They don’t require your input on the matter.

    Salkin is entirely right about how quickly American Jews are willing to disassociate themselves from the political side of Israel with such blatantly anti-democratic measures being proposed. The demonization of non-Jews in Israel is a major step backward for the only real democracy in the Middle East.

    Netanyahu seems to be taking a cue from Winston Churchill’s later period, after the war. A dinosaur behind the times, trying to hold on to a self-serving past which was long gone. Turning Israel into a theocratic state or the apartheid state, its more hysterical detractors wrongly accuse it of being, won’t do much for relations with the US.

  3. In other words, Mr. Netanyahu should be crucially influenced by Mr. Salkin’s anxieties and misconceptions.

  4. Unlike you, Larry, I don’t live in a homogenized bubble and thus have friends and acquaintances across the spectrum. I know a good cross-section of religious and secular Jews, ranging from modern Orthodox to humanist and everything in between, from traditional Conservative to Reform, Reconstructionist and unaffiliated, both professionally and personally, in Israel as well as in America. I am simply stating the obvious, from the perspective of a wide range of Israeli Jews I know. You may not like what you hear, but attacking the messenger is hardly the solution.

    Anyone who knows Netanyahu at all realizes how preposterous it is to claim that he wants a theocratic or apartheid state. That is something I would expect to hear from a BDS radical at Berkeley, not someone like you who appeared to be supportive of the right of Israel to exist and defend herself.

    And no, there is nothing wrong with declaring the obvious — that Israel is a Jewish state. Netanyahu is trying to head off the so-called post-Zionist movement in Israel, which is essentially advocating the old-line Arafat/Marxist view that the Jewish state should be replaced by a “secular democratic state” — which are code words for the end of the Israel that was established in 1948. Maybe you should research post-Zionism before being so quick to criticize.

    And from the Israelis’ perspective, if Salkin is going to go wobbly on the bedrock notion that Israel is a Jewish state, that is Salkin’s problem and not their own.

    What’s interesting and ironic is how outside of Israel, Christians seem to have a better understanding of this than radical secularists of Jewish descent.

  5. “Some of my best friends are ….” Really? That is what you are going with.

    Homogenous? My family reads like the roll call of a UN subcommittee and an interfaith convention combined.

    How about this, a good portion of my family is Jewish and runs across the spectrum of sects. I have family living in Israel as well. It still takes a great deal of arrogance and nerve for someone outside of that group to claim to define them. One would never presume to tell you how Christians should identify themselves. I would think it is at the very least polite to acknowledge how that others would feel the same about their beliefs/cultural identity.

    Netanyahu doesn’t support a theocratic state but a good portion of the coalition which keeps him in power does. He relies heavily on the ultra-orthodox extremist parties for the edge that keeps the more liberal opposition out of the Prime Minister position. About the only thing that keeps such groups in check politically is the loathing of the ultra-orthodox by the “hawks” within Netanyahu’s coalition. The ones who resent having to defend anti-democratic, anti-modern communities of people who opt out of obligations to national defense.

    As for an apartheid state, that is exactly what this bill is proposing. The constant attempts at undermining political power of Israeli arabs is bad enough, but deliberately excluding them from consideration of national character is really starting to cross lines. [No, I don’t take the current accusations of Israel as an “Apartheid State” seriously whatsoever]

    I hate to break the news to you, but Israel as a secular, somewhat leftist state was always part of Zionism. Many of the early founders of Israel were radical leftists. Some even out and out communists. Never heard of a kibbutz? Heck, the USSR was an early supporter of Israel, (before they realized they could benefit more greatly from exploiting anti-colonial sentiment in oil producing Arab states).

    Secularism and religious freedom was part of Israeli DNA from the outset. Secularism among Jews was a major part of their culture since the 19th Century. It isn’t post Zionism, it was part of Zionism, period. Democracy in Israel (and everywhere else) depends on secularism. The acceptance of other faiths in the political process and citizenship is a major part of Israeli identity.

    The problem is you have no sense of the history of the area. You assume the current status quo was the way it always was.

  6. More likely than not he will be influenced by the hawkish elements of his own coalition. Those who do not want to spend time and resources dealing with civil unrest caused by intentionally ticking off its own citizens. They have enough problems with outside enemies, they do not need to be creating new internal ones.

  7. Seems about as ridiculous as America officially branding itself as a “Protestant” nation or an “Anglo-Saxon” nation, for those who say that Israel refers to ethnic Jews in its label of a “Jewish Nation”.

    Identifying your supposedly religiously and ethnically free nation as a nation specific to one religion or one ethnic group does not make for an free nation. Doing that specifically states that “in order to identify as our nation, you must belong to this group, for our nation identifies as this group.”

    Would there not be outrage if the Republic of Turkey declared itself to be an “Islamic Nation”, or Ireland calling itself a “Gaelic People’s Nation”?? Or the state of Utah official proclaiming itself as a “Mormon State”??

  8. Larry, I don’t require tutelage from you about Israel, Zionism, its history, and its political and ideological origins and its current manifestations. I grew up immersed in it, as did four prior generations. Pull up a chair and I can talk for hours about every facet of it. If you are genuinely pro-Israel and not too wobbly about it, you would actually find some of the stories behind it quite interesting.

    Yes, there have been elements to Netanyahu’s coalition that are theocratic, but your insinuation that he is in any way theocratic is entirely erroneous. There’s not even a smidgeon of truth to it.

    As for the bill, again, all it does is acknowledge the reality of the state of Israel….Yes, of course it is a secular democracy. Do you think Bibi denies that for a single second? But if you knew half of what you claim to know about Israel, you would know that Israel is both a democracy and a Jewish state and operates on the premise that it can continue to be both. To support the modern state of Israel necessarily means to support both.

    Again, I suggest you learn about post-Zionism before accusing me of saying that it means all forms of secularism. I never said that. As you mentioned, the origins of modern Zionism are precisely with people of secularistic mindsets (with the Jabotinsky and Begin wings being the exception that proves the rule)…..with most being socialists and many starting kibbutzim and moshavim.

    Post-Zionism is not merely the denial of a state with a Jewish religious identity, but one with a Jewish ethnic or national identity as well. It is the belief that accepts the late Yasir Arafat’s narrative about Israel being an illegitimate state, and his prescription of an end to the Jewish character of the state in favor of a state of Palestine of two peoples.

    And it is altogether clear that among the descendants of the secular Zionist halutzim, post-Zionism is making permanent inroads. And Salkin is indirectly responding to the fact that American Jewish kids are slowly but inexorably buying into the beginnings of post-Zionism.

  9. If you think it controversial for Israel to reiterate that it is a Jewish state (while of course remaining a democracy), perhaps you might ask yourself, Larry, whose side you are really on regarding Israel’s struggle for survival.

  10. Fourth Valley, Israel was founded as a Jewish state and for its entire existence, it has shown that it can maintain that status while still remaining one of the most vibrant and inclusive democracies in the world. The fact that some American Jews show signs of going wobbly on that foundational principle or are somehow embarrassed by it says more about them than about Israel. More of them should visit Israel or actually talk to Israelis so they can see for themselves.

    We can talk theory all we want, but there is no substitute for watching a nation in action by going there and talking to the people who call it home.

  11. The only point I’m ultimately making is that the article criticizes Netanyahu on something that is not controversial at all — except to those who either want Israel to go out of existence or those who have been quietly ambivalent about the Jewish nature of Israel since its founding in 1948. Unfortunately for Israel, a lot of that ambivalence comes from Jews who have no clear Jewish identity, ethnic or religious. While most Jews in Israel, by virtue of living there, have resolved that issue for themselves, more or less, the exception are the post-Zionists.

    And that is the context for Salkin’s article and his own nervousness.

  12. Which gets me back to my original point of you being arrogant enough to tell people about their own religious and cultural identity. Somehow you know better, for some reason. πŸ™‚

    This bill is the equivalent of “anchor baby” legislation on the floor of Congress. It is proposed as a measure to placate the extremists people on the right wing depend upon for votes. But has zero chance of being passed or even debated on the floor because it is far too caustic and divisive to consider.

    I don’t think for a minute that Netanyahu does more than go through the motions of keeping the ultra-orthodox extremists happy. But he does depend on them for a slight margin of power.

    You argue several points I did not make or misconstrued what was said. Netanyahu’s coalition is a combination of theocrats and “hawks”. The two groups can’t stand each other but find some mutual goals.

    “you would know that Israel is both a democracy and a Jewish state and operates on the premise that it can continue to be both”

    Which is why that bill is such a nasty piece of work. It undermines both. It would be nice if you actually bothered to address the relevant part of the article.

    As for “Post Zionism” it has nothing to do with support of a secular Israel. Something you seemed to make an about face about (from decrying secularism to being proud of).

    “And it is altogether clear that among the descendants of the secular Zionist halutzim, post-Zionism is making permanent inroads.”

    A word salad of jargons and assumed positions having more to do with a desire to label a group than anything related to actual beliefs and policies.

    This bill is a direct attack on Israeli democratic and secular identity in favor of something far less desirable.

  13. That is completely untrue. This is about Israel undermining its own identity through proposed legislation to attack its secular political underpinnings. What happens when people do not understand how important divisions of religion and state are for a democracy. [Though in all likelihood the bill will be DOA on the Kenesset floor]

    Again you feel the need to lecture about their Jews and their identity without any real notion of what that is. You have your own ideas as to how Jewish identity is formed but it has little to do with how THEY would see it. What kind of arrogance does that take?

  14. Jack, you are like someone who is a recent convert to a religion. They feel a huge need to show how fervent their belief is, so people will believe their sincerity. They become more fanatical and extreme than those who grew up in the belief. You feel the need to fall in line and accept everything the current group in power in Israel says. Any criticism is deemed as an attack upon the country itself. Very silly.

    Israel is the Jewish Homeland, but calling it the Jewish State in an official capacity, and banning official use of the language of a significant portion of its citizenry, is nothing more than a cheap attempt at attacking democratic principles. Israel’s survival will never depend on the will of ultra-orthodox religious nationalistic extremists. The “support” from Evangelical Christians is also not really helpful either most of the time either. Its not like either of those groups will be be the ones manning the planes, tanks and ships defending the country.

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