The following statement first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was then distributed by email by the Israel Policy Forum. The version below is taken from that email.
Last week when Palestinians murdered innocent worshippers in a west Jerusalem synagogue at morning services, one of the first Israeli policeman on the scene was Zidan Saif, a Druze. He played a key role in stopping the assault and was murdered as he did so. The entire nation took note of his sacrifice. Israelis, among them many ultra-Orthodox and President Rivlin, turned out in droves for his funeral as a sign of respect and deep gratitude. One week later the Israeli Knesset is poised to consider a bill which would demean this man’s standing as an Israeli citizen.
It is with sadness that we write these words. Neither of us has ever spoken out in public forums in criticism of Israel. We have held to the view, which even some Israelis consider antiquated, that as long as we have not chosen to live there permanently, our right to comment on internal Israeli decisions ought to be limited. We are both staunch supporters -- indeed lovers -- of the State of Israel. We rejoice in the fact that we have lived there for extended periods. We consider the Jewish state to be central to our own self-understanding and identity as Jews.
It is precisely because of that love that, we find ourselves so alarmed at the recent support of the Israeli Cabinet for a proposed basic law entitled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Prime Minister Netanyahu is intent on introducing this proposed bill to the Knesset. It would formally identify Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, enshrine Jewish law as a source of inspiration for legislation, and delist Arabic as an official language. The law pointedly fails to affirm the democratic character of Israel.
The proposed legislation betrays the most fundamental principles enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which promises “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex and will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture."
Such a bill will certainly concern, if not inflame, Israel’s Arab citizens. However, such a law also concerns countless Jews in Israel and throughout the world who are committed to Israel as a democratic state devoted to human rights and equality for all.
To be sure, we firmly believe that Israel is a Jewish state just as its neighbors are Muslim states. We are also proud that Israel, in contrast to most of these other states, is a democracy that proclaims that religious minorities who live within its borders can be full-fledged citizens who suffer no impediments because of their faith or identity. Israel has found this a difficult balance to maintain but it is what put Sidan Zaif at that Jerusalem synagogue last week.
The proposed bill provides no additional security for the State of Israel. It does not help it stand up to Hamas or any of the other nations or groups devoted to Israel’s destruction. On the contrary, we believe passage of this law places Israel in ever-greater danger. It fosters the impression that Israel has moved away from its firm commitment to democracy and sends a message that the full-fledged rights of the twenty percent of its citizens who are not Jews are diminished in the eyes of the law.
We are fearful that the proposed bill would serve as fodder for Israel’s critics at a time when that criticism is growing in volume beyond the borders of Israel. Some of Israel’s critics lie in wait for the slightest pretext to condemn her. This bill gives them that opportunity.
But it is not just Israel’s wellbeing that is threatened by this bill. For many decades, Jews such as us feared – and often rightly so – that criticism on our part could provide ammunition to those who opposed Israel’s existence. Now, to a certain degree, the tables are reversed. Israel’s actions directly impact Jews throughout the world. There is a rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world, particularly in Europe. Increasing numbers of European Jews feel that they live under threat and that even those who were once their allies – liberal, pro-democracy groups – have abandoned them. This bill delivers to those groups added cover to justify their opposition to Israel which often spills over into disturbing opposition to Jews per se.
Israel, which proudly claims that its mandate extends to the protection of Jews living outside its borders, should consider the impact of such a bill on global Jewry, especially Jews in Europe.
Consider the message this bill sends to Zidan Saif’s four-month old daughter -- that your father died for this state and its citizens but you are no longer a full-fledged member of it? In speaking out against such a bill, we speak for the future good of the Israel we cherish.
Our hearts, filled as they are with love for Israel, are truly heavy. But reverberating in our heads are the words of the prophet Isaiah: for the sake of Zion I will not remain silent. We believe we speak now for the sake of Zion and pray that the Knesset will reject passage of this bill.
David Ellenson is Chancellor of Hebrew Union College. Deborah Lipstadt is Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.