Devarim - 5778

Dear Congregant,

This weekend the Jewish world will be marking Tisha b’Av, a reminder – according to our Sages – of the devastation that can result when a society’s internal rifts overwhelm the forces that unify it.  How ironic, then, that in its final session before the summer recess, the Knesset chose to ratify a bill – now a “Basic Law, akin to a constitutional amendment – that declares that the Israeli flag and the menorah are "national symbols"; that, within the State of Israel,  national self-determination is a "unique right" of the Jewish people; and that "the development of Jewish settlement" is to have preferred status.

Mah pitom?”  (“What’s the big deal?”) you might ask.  Isn’t Israel already a country – the only country – in which Jews constitute the majority and Jewish identity, culture, language and national aspirations inform societal norms and priorities?  Why should we – or anybody else – get exercised about this 70-year-old reality finally being enshrined in law?

These question might best be answered by making reference to the groups who are most directly affected by this law’s passage, Israel’s Muslim, Christian and Druze citizens, who together constitute over twenty percent of the country’s population and who, in the case of the Druze and some Arabs and Bedouin, serve in the IDF.  These ethnic/religious minority communities and their shared language, Arabic – until now, like Hebrew, an official language – have been downgraded to a secondary status in the eyes of Israeli law (though the members of these groups, as individuals, retain their basic rights).

Although the full implications of the “Nation-State Law” are not yet clear – and it may be, as its supporters claim, that in the end it results in few concrete changes – there is widespread fear among civil libertarians and Israel's minority communities that the law, and the spirit of the law, may pave the way for legalized discrimination against non-Jewish Israelis in matters such as where they are permitted to live and in their ability to express collective grievances. 

What is clear is that its passage has angered and alienated Israel’s minority communities and deals a blow to the democratic character of the Jewish state and to the protections prescribed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which guarantees all Israelis “complete equality of social and political rights … no matter their religion, race or sex.”

In the lead-up to America’s Civil War, then-candidate Abraham Lincoln looked at the rifts emerging in American society and pronounced, prophetically, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.  In our own day, we might similarly question whether Israel – not in the sense of B'nei Yisrael (the genealogic and ideological descendants of the ancient Israelite wanderers) but, rather, ezrachei Medinat Yisrael (Israel’s modern citizenry, which includes 2 million non-Jews) – can thrive while fueling divisions among its people along religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic lines.

Sin'at hinam (baseless hatred of one’s fellow) has been our people’s downfall in this season throughout the generations.  Let us pray that it does prove not an unintended consequence of the Nation-State Law in our own day.

Shabbat shalom and an easy Tisha b'Av fast to those who will be observing it on Saturday night and Sunday.

-- Rabbi Rachel Safman