Yonatan Gher
Director, Amnesty International Israel

Can we be Jewish and Democratic?

Much has already been said over this past day, following Netanyahu’s Instagram comment:

Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.

To be clear: Netanyahu gives zero shoots about the issue at hand. President Rivlin responded, as did Gal Gadot and the ADL. That’s what Netanyahu wanted, a news homepage that looks like this:

Netanyahu is where he wanted to be: center-stage, setting the agenda, and appealing to his base. He then lets out this bull-shoot, just as he did after the last elections with his Arabs moving in droves and his “apology,” appeasing Jewish America while basically telling Israel’s Palestinian citizens that if they’re not happy, they can go to Syria.

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So let’s put Netanyahu aside (both for the sake of this conversation, and on April 9th) and talk about the issue. Reference to the state as being of “Klal Ezrahei’ha” – all of its citizens – is a charged phrase. It’s like “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” or “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” – phrases anyone could get behind until you understand the back-story.

“Of all of its citizens” is a phrase that stands for an agenda which seeks to disconnect the “Jewish” from the “Jewish and Democratic” definition Israel aspires to live by.

It is the “pro-choice” to Israel’s “pro-life” (or vice-versa). This concept would be easier to address if it weren’t for the way Israel relates to its “Jewish and Democratic” definition — as if it’s an oxymoron, time and time again passing legislation such as the Nation-State Law, which, by Netanyahu’s own words, aims to strengthen the “Jewish” at the expense of the “democratic,” or basically he’s saying Israel is a democracy for Jews. And that – to anyone who knows and cares at all about democracy – is the mother of all oxymorons, and deeply sinister.

But does “Jewish and Democratic” have to be an oxymoron? I would say no, and also that treating it as such is offensive to me both as a democrat and a Jew.

“Nation-state of the Jewish people” – here’s the thing: That’s not like saying “France is the nation-state of the French” or “Russia is the nation-state of the Russians,” because Christians, Jews, Muslims, black, white, and fabulous can all be French or Russian. Jewish is not a nationality (though my ID card thinks otherwise and cites “Jewish” under “Nationality”). Jewish is a people, and a race and a religion, all merged into one. But when you legislate to have specific rights just for this group of people, there is a word for that, and it’s apartheid.

Israel is and should be the homeland of the Jewish people. I’m not sure I buy into Uri Avnery’s philosophy, by which Zionism ran its course upon the foundation of the State of Israel, though that’s a concept worth thinking about. I do consider myself a Zionist, but my Zionism says this: Israel is and should be a homeland for the Jewish People. But the home is not a house, but an apartment, in a building with other tenants as well, all of whom deserve to live together in equality. The building can have a mezuzah on its door, and a Christmas tree in its lobby, and a crescent on its roof, all of which don’t make it any less a home for the Jewish people.

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This is what “of all its citizens” could mean. Not erasing anyone’s identity, and not threatening Israel’s future or Jewish identity. A Jewish identity that asserts itself not through laws which focus on demography and the creation of classes, but by the fundamental Jewish values of “Ve’ahavta Le’reach’a Camocha” – love your fellow as yourself. Also remembering, that for co-existence to prevail, everyone’s gotta exist. It’s time for us Israelis to demand this vision on April 9th. And it’s time for the Jewish Diaspora to stop getting distracted by Netanyahu and Trump’s orchestrated distractions, and start holding Israel’s leadership to task.

About the Author
The writer is the Director of Amnesty International Israel. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, Regional Communications Director of Greenpeace Mediterranean and Spokesperson for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons.
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