American Orthodox Leaders Back Israel’s Nation-State Law
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American Orthodox Leaders Back Israel’s Nation-State Law

In face of liberal criticism, area rabbis here say measure declaring Israel a Jewish homeland ‘codifies what we all know.’

An Israeli flag is inscribed with the text of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem. JTA
An Israeli flag is inscribed with the text of “Hatikvah,” the national anthem. JTA

Israel’s new nation-state law that declares Israel to be the “national home of the Jewish people” continued to come under attack from some liberal American Jewish leaders and academics this week, but several Orthodox Jewish leaders interviewed here expressed support for it.

“Our community feels the law did not carve out any new territory and reaffirmed our understanding of Israel,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the world’s largest organizations of Orthodox rabbis. “Israel is the fulfillment of our dreams as a land promised to the Jews. The law does not compromise and should not compromise the rights of minorities in the state.”

The National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for 146 Orthodox congregations with approximately 25,000-member families in North America, issued a statement applauding Israel’s Knesset for adopting the law that “codifies what we all know to be the fundamental principles and rudimentary facts relative to the deep-seated and longstanding link that the Jewish people and Israel have shared for thousands of years.

“Israel is indeed the ‘national home of the Jewish people’ and anyone attempting to deny that basic premise is turning a blind eye to history and disregarding what is an elemental truth.”

However, the Orthodox Union, the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in the United States, said only that it “respects the decision made by the Knesset’s majority.”

“It is the longstanding position of the Orthodox Union that salient issues of law and policy for the State of Israel are best determined by the government and citizens of Israel through the state’s democratic process and institutions,” it explained.

Israel is indeed the ‘national home of the Jewish people’ and anyone attempting to deny that basic premise is turning a blind eye to history and disregarding what is an elemental truth.

Similar to a constitutional amendment, the change in Israel’s Basic Laws asserts also that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, that national self-determination in the state of Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” that Hebrew is the state’s language, that Arabic — previously classified as an official language — now has simply a “special status in the state.”

Also among the law’s supporters is Rabbi Avi Weiss, rabbi-in-residence of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale —the Bayit, who said that although he is a “strong supporter of the bill, even supporters say it might require some amendments to make sure all citizens of Israel are treated equally.”

According to the Jerusalem Post, 60 percent of Jews and 73 percent of Israeli Arabs believe the law should be amended to include a guarantee of equality between all communities. And the paper said that 58 percent of Israelis support the law while 34 percent oppose it.

Rabbi Avi Weiss leading a vigil and march in New York City in remembrance of the three Israeli boys who were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank days earlier in June 2014. Getty Images

Rabbi Weiss pointed out that he is a “strong supporter of Yehuda and Shomron [the West Bank], and I have gone to an Arab village after a mosque there was burned down and I have reached out to the Arab family whose son was brutally murdered after the killing of three Israeli boys. A strong sense of Jewish nationalism does not contradict universal consciousness but is a prerequisite to it.”

He added that he is “very troubled” by the name calling he has heard surrounding the bill: “Supporters are calling detractors non-patriots and detractors are calling supporters racists — and I think that kind of language has to stop.”

Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, questioned why there should be such opposition to the law.

“Do these people think ‘Hatikva’ shouldn’t be Israel’s national anthem?” he asked. “Do they think there should not be a law of return that only applies to Jews? Do they think it is wrong that Hebrew should be an official language and that Arabic is not an official language anymore? What about English? The law is just a recognition that Israel is a Jewish country — that is how it was founded. I’m not saying that everything is 100 percent perfect, but the law codifies basic understandings from the founding of the state. It is a place that Jews can come, there will be a Jewish star on its flag and Jewish Independence Day is a holiday, as are the religious Jewish holidays. … People are overreacting in an extraordinary way. On the ground, I’m not sure it has changed virtually anything.”

The adoption of the nation-state law comes at a time when the country has its most right-wing government in history. That too was reflected in the Jerusalem Post poll, which found that 85 percent of rightists support the law and 75 percent of leftists oppose it. And today in Israel, religious Orthodoxy and right-wing politics tend to go hand-in-hand.

That has proved to be troubling to Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. Although he said he preferred not to comment on the nation-state law because “it is not my area of expertise,” he does believe changes need to be made regarding “official religious standards.”

“At the beginnings of the state, the leadership … felt that matters of personal religious status must be held by the Chief Rabbinate in order to unify the state,” he said. “Today, a generation later, one could look back and say it is no longer effective… If we are going to bring religion to the multitude of Israelis, it is going to have to be through persuasion rather than through coercion.”

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