Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday hit back at scathing criticism of the nation-state law by an American Jewish leader, branding Ron Lauder’s admonishment of the Israeli government over recent legislation “audacious and preposterous.”
World Jewish Congress president Lauder on Monday excoriated the Israeli government, saying that recent policies pose a threat to the future of the Jewish people.
In an op-ed published by the New York Times, the cosmetics billionaire and Jewish advocate listed the cancellation of the agreement for an egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall, strict conversion laws, the recent passing of surrogacy legislation which excludes gay men, the nation-state bill, the arrest of a rabbi for performing weddings outside the rabbinate and a tightening of rules surrounding the closing of convenience stores on Shabbat in some Israeli municipalities, as “creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.”
Bennett, who is also education minister and leader of the coalition Jewish Home party, responded in a New York Times op-ed of his own, positing that Israel’s new quasi-constitutional law that enshrines Israel’s status as a Jewish state does not harm the country’s non-Jewish minorities. He also asserted that the law is merely designed to balance the Jewish and democratic dimensions of the country, with the latter previously laid down in Israel’s Basic Laws.
“Some critics of the law, as Mr. Lauder suggested, seem to believe that a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people could somehow amount to a threat to the Jewish people,” wrote Bennett. “They argue bizarrely that somehow the addition of such a law to Israel’s robust judicial system, and political checks and balances, poses a threat to the future of the Jewish people, and to Jews the world over.
“This is at once audacious and preposterous,” wrote the senior cabinet minister.
“While I normally would happily respect the views of Jews all over the world — as different or as similar as they may be to my own — on this claim I cannot remain silent,” he continued. “Keeping Israel as the Jewish nation-state does not threaten the future of the Jewish people; it safeguards it. Protecting Jewish traditions, just as they safeguarded our people through two millenniums of exile, is the only way to be sure that Israel can continue to be a strong and vibrant democracy in a very difficult region.”
Lauder’s Monday op-ed was the second time this year that the former confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a prominent and deep-pocketed supporter of Israel has published strident criticism of the government, reflecting a growing rift between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.
Going into greater detail on the controversial nation-state legislation, Lauder noted that it “correctly reaffirms that Israel is a Jewish state, but also damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”
The nation-state law passed by the Knesset on July 19 as one of the country’s basic laws enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” for the first time, but critics say it undermines the constitution’s commitment to equality for all its citizens.
The government says the new nation-state law merely enshrines the country’s existing character, and that Israel’s democratic nature and provisions for equality are anchored in existing legislation.
However, Lauder charged that the repercussions of the legislation will not only be felt on a national level, but also on a global scale as the country “may find itself associated with a broken values system and questionable friends.”
“As a result, future leaders of the West may become hostile or indifferent to the Jewish state,” he wrote.
The longtime donor to pro-Israel and Republican causes said the recent Israeli policies pose the “greatest threat” to the future of the Jewish people because as, “Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality, many supporters feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.”
“When members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence,” he charged, though without mentioning Netanyahu by name.
While many of the policies enacted by the government are seen as concessions to Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Lauder noted that the majority of Jews around the world are not Orthodox, but rather traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated.
Lauder charged that the country is being held hostage by ultra-Orthodox politicians, and that this in turn could result in a lack of support for Israel on American campuses and in the corridors of power.
“Orthodoxy should be respected, but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide,” he wrote.
“Young Jews might not acquiesce to an affiliation with a nation that discriminates against non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jewish minorities and the LGBT community,” noted Lauder. “They may not fight the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, they may not support Israel in Washington and they may not provide it with the strategic rear guard that Israel so needs.”
“I call upon Israeli leaders to rethink their destructive actions during this summer of disharmony,” he wrote.
“This is not who we are, and this is not who we wish to be. This is not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren and the family of nations. Let us work together to change course and ensure that Israel will continue to be the Jewish democratic state it is meant to be.”
In March, Lauder published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he said that Israeli government policies threaten the country’s democratic character and even its existence, as well as pressing hard for a two-state solution and implicitly chiding Netanyahu for his repeated claims that the only thing obstructing peace is Palestinian recalcitrance.
Lauder was for decades close to the prime minister, backing him during his first run for prime minister in 1996 and defending him in the Diaspora. He also served as a back-channel for contacts with Arab leaders.
Over the last several years, there have been signs that they have grown apart, stemming from Lauder’s refusal, seven years ago, to block a report unflattering to Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, that was broadcast on an Israeli television channel in which Lauder had a part ownership stake.
Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder cosmetic empire and president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007, has also been one of the most consistent voices of support for Trump in the Jewish community, and the two have been friends since the 1980s, when they both emerged as influential moguls on the New York political and social scenes.