Sara Greenberg, adviser to Israeli Prime Minister for 'world communities,' at Jewish Federations assembly Oct. 22, 2018.
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Last July the Israeli parliament adopted a basic law defining Israel as"the nation state of the Jewish people," with more rights for Jews than other groups: including that Arabic was no longer an official language, that "Jewish settlement" was a national value, and that the right of "national self-determination" in Israel was "unique" to Jews.
The law was denounced by Palestinians as an apartheid law, in which Palestinian citizens are absent. And liberal Zionists condemned the "shocking" law for making Palestinians "at best second class citizens."
Two days ago Sara Greenberg, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's adviser for diaspora Jews, sought to calm the waters by telling an audience of American Jews that the law is misunderstood by American Jews and that it actually reflects the strength of Israeli democracy -- because worse clauses were removed from the bill.
"There was a lot of different controversial clauses that came out through the debate and that ultimately were not in the bill, and I think from that perspective it was an example of the strength of Israeli democratic institutions. But perhaps in the end, a lot of people didn't realize that those clauses were out," Greenberg said at the general assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America meeting in Tel Aviv.
Greenberg was apparently referring to a line encouraging housing discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religion. It would have allowed the state to "authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community." American Jews decried the clause as reminiscent of Jim Crow laws.
It was replaced with the line, "The state views Jewish settlement as a national value and will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development."
She also said American Jews misunderstood the law's references to religion.
"The misunderstanding that I saw that came in a lot of the conversations I had in the diaspora communities was around the question of religion," Greenberg said. "A lot of people interpreted the law as defining a national religion, which was not the case. While there are I believe seven European countries that have state religions, the way this law handled religion was not to not handle it at all, but rather to think of Jewish people as a civilization, to understand what it means to create a self determined state with political independence for the Jewish people. That was a real misunderstanding."
That is a misrepresentation. In fact the law twice refers to the Jewish religion, beginning: "The state of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, religious, and historic right to self-determination."
The second reference to religion --"The state will act to preserve the cultural, historical and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora" -- is the line that was seen by some American Jews as obnoxious. The head of the Jewish Federations, the organization Greenberg addressed, said that language was "definitely patronizing" to American Jews. Jerry Silverman said that the clause was meant to stymie religious pluralism in Israel, and to limit the ability of non-orthodox Jews to hold mixed-gender prayers at the western wall. Silverman had argued against that clause, to no avail.
No one contradicted Greenberg's misrepresentations about the law, though; and today Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz that the general assembly of North American Jews had deferred to Netanyahu rather than taking him on.