Outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky on Wednesday slammed a controversial clause in the so-called Jewish State bill that is seen as opening the door to the establishment of Israeli communities where residency is limited to those who follow a certain religious or cultural lifestyle.
In a letter to Likud MK Amir Ohana, who heads the special committee tasked with finalizing the bill, Sharansky said that while he agrees with the broader sentiment of the proposed legislation, its details will widen the gulf between US Jews — the majority of whom are non-Orthodox — and Israel.
“The State of Israel is a national home for the entire Jewish people and it is clear to me that there is no dispute between any party or Zionist movement,” he wrote. “While the nation-state law was originally intended to reinforce this principle, the most recent amendments to it are of great concern because they drive a wedge between Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora.”
Clause 7B of the Likud-sponsored legislation, which the government hopes to have approved by the end of the month, would allow the state to “authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.”
That portion of the text is seen as allowing towns to exclude Arab citizens, or even other Jewish groups, and has come under criticism in Israel.
“It is regrettable that changes in the text of the bill add to the controversy that has surrounded the issue in recent years around the question of the place that should be given to different streams of Judaism in the public sphere,” the outgoing Jewish Agency chairman said.
Sharansky called on members of the committee to amend the legislation to “prevent another rift” between US Jewry and Israel.
He also pointed out that the proposed legislation, including its “revocation of the special status of the Arabic language,” would serve those who support a boycott of Israel. While the government was working to defeat the boycott, he warned, it would at the same time be giving ammunition to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.
“Recently, the Knesset passed a number of laws whose stated purpose was to strengthen the struggle against the boycott of Israel, but they were drafted and passed without the opinion of those who actually fight the boycott as a daily act in the Diaspora,” he wrote.
He ended with a call on the Knesset to consult with representatives of Diaspora Jewry before formulating the final version of the law.
Politicians, legal advisers and others have also warned that the proposed clause regarding the make-up of communities in the so-called Jewish State bill is discriminatory and could cast a dark shadow over Israel in the international arena.
According to a Tuesday Hadashot news report, Likud MKs were considering changing the text of the clause to a sentence that instead refers to international support for Jewish settlement on land “under its control.”
Earlier on Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin raised alarm over the bill, saying the legislation in its current form “could harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel, and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies.”
“Do we want to support the discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?” he wrote in his letter to lawmakers, which he also sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vigorous backer of the bill.
He said the bill could allow the establishment of towns that would, for example, exclude Jews of Middle Eastern origin, ultra-Orthodox Jews, or homosexuals.
Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon also published a legal opinion Tuesday saying he believed that the clause could cause the law to be overturned by the Supreme Court and therefore “urges MKs not to pass the law with it included.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also said he is opposed to the law in its current form and his deputy, Raz Nizri, echoed concerns during a committee debate on Tuesday morning.
If passed, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which like a constitution underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.
Judaism is already mentioned throughout the country’s laws, and religious authorities control many aspects of life, including marriage. But the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions like the Knesset, the courts and the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character.
The bill was first put forward by Likud MK Avi Dichter in 2014, but, facing criticism from both opposition members and liberal-minded members of his own party, it was shelved soon after. Since then, a number of versions of the legislation have been drafted by right-wing lawmakers, but none have made it through the Knesset to become law.
The latest version passed its first Knesset reading in May and was given a boost on Sunday by Netanyahu, who announced his intention to push the bill forward to become law before the current Knesset session ends on July 22.
Netanyahu told ministers that he wanted the bill passed in its current form, saying that it included compromises made to his coalition partners.
In addition to the clause on exclusive communities, the law would also set Hebrew as the official language of Israel. Arabic would be relegated from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to accessible state services.”
The law would also declare that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, make explicit the connection between Diaspora Jewry and the state, and fix the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, as well as recognizing Independence Day, days of remembrance and Jewish holidays.