Focus on Israel Turns Inward
By Rabbi Ira Youdovin
Chairman, Jewish Community Relations Council, Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara
Jan. 14, 2011
As we approach the next session in Federation’s monthly series of Conversations on Current Jewish Events, attention turns from Israeli-American relations, which had dominated the scene for several months, to controversial issues inside Israel.
Earlier this month, the Knesset voted to investigate the funding sources of left-leaning nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s). The decision arose from motions submitted by Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, the two largest right-wing parties.
Defending the initiative, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) said that he has evidence that funding comes from Saudi Arabia, and may have terrorist origins. That allegation was underscored by his party’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, who said that some NGOs are “terror-aiding organizations.”
MK Danny Danon, initiator of the Likud motion, charged that by assisting the NGOs, most of whom strongly oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and accuse settlers and soldiers of perpetrating violence, foreign governments and the European Union are interfering in Israel’s political process. He seeks to ascertain how much money is being received.
Reaction from the center and left has been swift and sharp. Labor MK Avishay Braverman, the government’s minority affairs minister, declared, “Recently, the Knesset has knitted together a racist, McCarthyist mix that transcends parties and endangers the State of Israel.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, one of the three Likud MK’s voting against the measure, warned that the inquiry would be a “show trial” and stressed in a newspaper interview: “We must stop this murky wave.”
The “murky wave,” as Rivlin characterized it, is an upsurge of what many in Israel and the Diaspora condemn as xenophobia, or even racism. Last October, the Cabinet approved a bill, promoted by Lieberman and his party, that would require non-Jewish applicants for citizenship—primarily West Bank Palestinians who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel—to swear an oath of allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state.” Although the measure would not affect those who already hold Israeli citizenship, fears were expressed by the bill’s opponents that once established, the requirement would eventually apply to them as well.
The Cabinet’s decision, which has not as yet received Knesset approval, brought charges of discrimination against Israel's Arab minority. Large numbers of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora voiced their objection. And many who had no problem with the concept of a loyalty oath, objected to its being imposed exclusively on non-Jews. PM Netanyahu responded by ordering that the bill be re-written to cover everybody seeking Israeli citizenship, including Jews. This may kill the proposal as many Hareidim (ultra-Orthodox) refuse to swear allegiance to a Jewish state they reject as illegitimate because it was created by human beings in pre-messianic times. Their Knesset supporters would likely block a bill that denies them citizenship.
Then in December, fifty rabbis, most of them serving municipalities as paid government employees, joined in a halachic (Jewish legal) decision prohibiting Jews from selling or renting homes to non-Jews. Among the reasons given for the prohibition are the danger of intermarriage, and the lowering of real estate prices in areas where non-Jews live. Gentiles' "different lifestyle from Jews" can endanger lives, they wrote. The ruling stipulates that “If a Jew sells or rents property to a gentile, his neighbors must warn him, and if he does not change his ways, the neighbors must avoid the person, and may not conduct business with him. A person who rents or sells to non-Jews also may not receive an aliyah in synagogue.”
Although the rabbis’ ruling is without the force of law, it’s indicative of a disturbing trend in Israeli life. When Avigdor Lieberman made imposition of a loyalty oath on Palestinian citizens a feature of his party’s 2009 election campaign, crowds of young people throughout Israel took to the streets to noisily demonstrate their support. Labor MK Isaac Herzog, the social affairs minister, told Israel's army radio: "There is a whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society. The overall picture is very disturbing and threatens the democratic character of the state of Israel. There have been a tsunami of measures that limit rights ... We will pay a heavy price for this."
Predictably, there is extensive debate over what underlies this trend. In an op ed in the Jewish Forward entitled, “McCarthy Comes to the Knesset,” Uri Zaki, a senior executive of one of the NGOs being investigated, wrote, “It seems inevitable that after 44 years in which one nation occupies another and deprives it of basic human and civil rights, the occupying society would also come to be affected by the occupation.”
Zaki’s reasoning has merit. But other factors are also in play in what is an extremely complex and difficult situation. However, two things are certain. Israel remains a democracy. And that democracy is currently being tested.
This issue, and others will be discussed at a brown bag lunch and Conversations on Current Jewish Events on Wednesday, January 19, 2011, 12:00-1:15 pm at the Bronfman Family JCC, 524 Chapala Street, Santa Barbara. No need for reservation. Beverages will be served. Please come.