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With new nation-state law, Israel shoots herself in the foot

Why the law is unnecessary, hurtful and dangerous.

(RNS) — This afternoon, I received an email announcing a new liturgical text for Tisha b’Av, the upcoming Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. The cover of the liturgical piece quotes Isaiah: “Zion will be redeemed by justice; those who return to her with righteousness.”

Please. Not today.

Yesterday, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that enshrines in Israel’s Basic Law that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

In the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, that respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state — the Jewish state. … Today we made it law: This is our nation, language, anthem and flag.”

Did Israel need a law that states something that’s so explicitly a central part of Zionist thinking? Didn’t the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel 70 years ago make that clear? Doesn’t the average fifth grader in an American synagogue school know that?

And, given that, why is such an obvious statement of Israel’s purpose so controversial? Why have so many diaspora Jewish groups sharply criticized this law? Not only the diaspora; President Reuven Rivlin called it a “weapon (for) our enemies.”

It is because the Nation-State Law raises not only Jewish fears but anti-Semitic canards as well, that Israel is xenophobic and exclusive. Indeed, the law demotes Arabic from being one of the official languages of Israel, along with Hebrew, to simply having a “special” status. It also permits the construction of Jewish-only communities in Israel.

If that were not enough, consider other headlines that have been emerging from Israel over the past few days. In Beit Shemesh, ultra-Orthodox Jews chased and threw stones at a girl whom they considered to be immodestly dressed. In Haifa, before dawn, police came to the home of a Conservative rabbi and arrested him for the “crime” of officiating weddings outside the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate.

More than a century ago, the Hebrew poet Zalman Shneur wrote, “The Middle Ages are approaching.” As the Conservative rabbi in Haifa, Dov Hayun, cried out on his Facebook page: “Iran is already here!”

Back to the Knesset. Thanks a lot, my brothers and sisters, for making our Jewish job out here that much harder.

What will the goyim (the nations of the world) say? For the past 70 years, we Jews have been defending Israel intellectually with a bumper sticker that reads “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel has made that self-satisfied piece of PR more difficult to proclaim. Some of us work full-time in fighting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, which seeks to isolate Israel economically because of its flaws. We defend Israel against charges that it is or is becoming an apartheid state. To Knesset members, we say a sarcastic thanks. You just stabbed rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and Jewish community leaders in the back.

What will our children say? Recently, young Jews have started walking off Birthright trips, designed to connect them with Israeli history and culture, because they believe those trips have failed to educate them about the occupation. Setting aside the question as to whether such tactics are ideologically or strategically correct, the Knesset has just added to the pile of accusations that Jewish students will have to process when colleges open again in just over a month. The legislators of the Jewish state have just left a lot of Jewish students struggling to find the words to defend that state.

What will God say? This goes back to the quote from Isaiah and beyond. Could there be a more cynical coincidence — that Tisha b’Av is coming, and that the sages said that one of the reasons for the destruction of the Second Temple was sinat chinam, the gratuitous hatred that flowed freely between the Jews?

For all of his pious proclamations about the unity of the Jewish people, we must ask Netanyahu: Do you really believe it? Are you willing to sacrifice that unity on the altar of political expediency? Israeli leaders know that the Orthodox are on the ascendancy, both in Israel and in the United States. The rest of the global Jewish family might be expendable.

I love Israel. I just returned from two weeks there, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where we imbibe the lived language of Jewish pluralism. I am a Zionist, because I actually do believe that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people; where Jewish values are played out in real time; where society incorporates the flow of Jewish time into its public calendar; and where love of the other, the music of Arabic language in the streets, the mixing of Jews and Arabs in the malls, the Palestinian doctor who treated me at a clinic in Jerusalem last week — these, too, are Zionism.

A great Israeli thinker once said to me: “When I think of all the ways that Israel has insulted non-Orthodox and diaspora Jews, and how you keep coming, keep giving, keep supporting us — that is a miracle. Lesser people would have walked away.”

I am not walking away. My attitude toward Israel is like Job’s attitude toward God: You want to keep testing me? Go ahead. You will not break my faith in you.

At the very least, though: Could you make it easier for us?

Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)