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Israel’s Prerogatives

The American Diaspora has a right to criticize Israel, but it also must recognize Israel’s need to protect itself.

The politics of Israel often produce unintended consequences in the Diaspora. Take the Nation-State law that was recently pushed by the government and narrowly approved in the Knesset. It is a law that calls Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people—something that is a reality. But because it makes no mention of democracy and equality, and reduces the status of the Arabic language, it has produced a backlash in Israel among the Druze and Arab citizens, and an outcry in the Diaspora that Israel seems to be adopting increasingly illiberal laws.

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Why did the government push it? Some will argue that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is made up largely of right-wing parties that are highly nationalistic and that the law plays to their national-religious base. Perhaps, but that is too narrow an interpretation. Israel faces a de-legitimization movement internationally that seeks to undermine its right to self-defense, and the law is meant to put on the record the enduring nature and character of the state. The law sends the message that Israel will not become a binational state, that it will retain its national anthem (“Hatikvah”) and its flag.

It is easy to misrepresent a law that does not include the terms “democracy” and “equality.” But both have been enshrined in Basic Laws. Lacking a constitution, Israel has adopted 14 basic laws, including the Nation-State law, which cannot contradict its predecessors. From that standpoint, one could argue that the new law need not include the terms “democracy” and “equality,” because they are embedded in other laws.

Still, while true legally, there is a need politically. If Diaspora Jews feel that Israel is moving away from its liberal core values with a law like this, why not amend the law and insert a commitment to democracy and equality? Or even simply insert words from the Declaration of Independence, which stated that Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture...”

In other words, there is a way to politically fix the Nation-State law. Certainly, the backlash in the Diaspora is a reminder of a broader need: The Israeli government must pay more attention to the sensitivities in the outside Jewish world, particularly when the state declares itself to be the nation-state of the Jewish people. That requires its leaders to see themselves as representing the Jewish communities outside of Israel as well, and not only narrow constituencies in Israel.

Ironically, in seeking to protect Israel from those trying to delegitimize it, the law’s backers have inadvertently played into the hands of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which, along with other critics, has claimed that Israel has relegated minorities to second-class status. But consider another irony: Here is Israel, the one country in the Middle East that has an independent judiciary, a separation of powers, regularly and unregularly held elections that are fiercely combatted, a critical press corps, a lively civil society, and an unmistakable rule of law—and it is being challenged for being undemocratic and discriminatory.

It is neither. But obviously the Israeli government needs to be aware of how its actions are taken and interpreted outside Israel. This gets at a larger question that must also be addressed. It is right to call on Israelis to take account of Diaspora needs and concerns as well as their own. But Diaspora Jewry should also acknowledge a basic reality: When it comes to security, it is Israelis who live in a region where threats are commonplace and peace is not. Today, Israel faces a complicated, dangerous reality. In Syria, Iran is embedding Shia militias, some of which come from as far away as Pakistan. They are not doing it for defensive reasons. Why does Iran, when it is facing increasing domestic discontent over its foreign adventures, need to build a land-bridge that goes through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast? Why is it seeking to create in Syria what it has produced in Lebanon with Hezbollah, which has a stranglehold on the government and its thousands of rockets? The short answer is to have a forward military platform and infrastructure to threaten Israel.

But Israel does not just face the prospect of a new northern front. It is also contending with ISIS-affiliated groups in the Sinai and ongoing threats from Hamas in Gaza. When it comes to dealing with regional threats, Israel’s government needs the flexibility to do what is necessary; this is especially important at a time when the Trump administration backs Israel rhetorically and diplomatically but has left it largely on its own when it comes to countering the Iranians in Syria. And, also largely on its own when it comes to dealing with Russia in Syria. Why else would Netanyahu meet with Vladimir Putin nine times in the last three years? It reflects the need for constant management of the Russians.

True, Diaspora communities may sometimes feel unsettled by Israeli military actions. Israel, however, must live with and counter threats in the area. The one unmistakable lesson of Middle Eastern realities is that being weak invites catastrophe. In short, when it comes to security issues, the Diaspora’s considerations must be secondary to Israel’s.

On the non-security issues, however, the Diaspora not only has a right to raise its voice and concerns, it has a duty. If Israel’s government is adopting illiberal policies that seem to challenge basic core Jewish values, voices in the Diaspora must be heard. One way of preserving Jewish identity is for Diaspora leaders to stand as a bulwark against the growth of populism, extreme nationalism, and rejection of the “other.” Here they will be standing for the essence of Jewish values of tolerance and justice. For younger Jews who may question their Judaism, the more they see that there is such a thing as Jewish civilization—with humanistic values that represent the answer to growing intolerance and xenophobia internationally—the more they are likely to retain their identity.

Diaspora Jews should be willing to question Israeli government’s policies on non-security issues that go against the grain of traditional Jewish values or even increase division among different strains of Judaism. When it comes to security, however, Diaspora Jews need to recognize what Israel is facing in the region—and its right to act.