A Jewish State?

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is concerned that Israel will end up creating a Palestinian state in Yehudah and Shomron in order to prevent a binational state, only to receive a binational state in what’s left of Israel. “You can’t light the national candle on both ends,” he said at the start of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. “[You can’t] disengage in order to prevent a binational state and at the same time revere a binational state in Israel’s territory.”

This may indeed be the intent of the Palestinians and explains why PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a seemingly minor concession. His idea of a two-state solution is a Palestinian state alongside a “country of all of its citizens” in which Arabs are a growing population that already control much of the Galilee, the Negev and areas surrounding Yerushalayim.

But while Netanyahu is correct in his analysis, he is woefully mistaken in his estimation of the solution.

Legislating that Israel is a Jewish country is meaningless. It is, l’havdil, like trying to legislate that Israel is a polite, well-mannered country. Either it is, in which case legislation is unnecessary, or it isn’t, in which case it doesn’t help.

Israel’s Jewishness — among the general public — has eroded over the years. Once, a radio-program host would routinely sign off on Thursday wishing his listeners “Shabbat shalom.” Today, it is more often than not “have a nice weekend.”

Once, it was a given that stores were closed on Shabbos (with very few exceptions), that entertainment centers wouldn’t operate on Shabbos night in Yerushalayim, that Rabbanim had unquestioned authority to rule in critical areas of personal status, including marriage and divorce. Once, the idea of a treif meat shop in a Jewish neighborhood brought looks of revulsion from Israelis of all religious and secular stripes.

But over the years, the stridently secular media, backed by the hyperactive High Court of Justice, chipped away at the outward signs of Jewishness. The excuse wasn’t (G-d forbid!) anything as crass as seeking to erode Israel as a Jewish country. Rather, it was the desire to strengthen its democratic character.

So everyone was given rights — those who simply had to eat pork, and had to go out on Friday night in Yerushalayim, and had to be able to marry in ways that bypass halachah — except Yiddishkeit. It is hard to recall a High Court decision that went in favor of preserving Israel’s Jewish character.

Netanyahu’s proposal is counterproductive because it reveals how much opposition there is among the country’s political leadership — not among the people — to Israel being turned into a Jewish country, even at the declarative level of legislation.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has said that she will fight him tooth and nail on the proposal. Why? What could she possibly find objectionable about a law that, in Netanyahu’s words, “fortifies the State of Israel as the nation-state of our people”?

After paying lip service to her party’s willingness to “defend Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state,” she gets to the point: “By no means will we allow for the weakening of democratic values and their subjugation to Jewish ones.” In other words, she’ll tolerate a little Judaism, but only as long as it does not get in the way of a pristine democracy.

Ironically, Netanyahu’s proposal shows that a substantial part of his government, including Livni and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, agree with Abbas that Israel should not be declared a Jewish country, albeit for different reasons. Netanyahu stands alone not only against the world, but also against his own dysfunctional government.

The prime minister has only himself to blame for the situation. He contributed to the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state by forming a coalition that has dictated an unprecedented wave of antireligious legislation, everything from drafting yeshivah students to weakening the rabbinical courts.

Finally, legislation won’t work because the world won’t buy it. Just as it didn’t help to legislate Yerushalayim as Israel’s eternal capital or the annexation of the Golan Heights, it won’t help to pass a law saying that Israel is a Jewish country.

On the other hand, if Israel began acting more like a Jewish country when it comes to Shabbos and kashrus, strengthening the authority of Rabbanim and encouraging Torah learning, then the world would understand, and accept, that Israel is indeed a Jewish country.

The story has been told of a Palestinian terrorist arrested in the first intifada who saw his Israeli guard eating pita on Pesach. When he challenged him on it, asking how he could eat chametz, the guard was dismissive about the need to observe Jewish law. At that moment, the Palestinian for the first time felt hope that their cause would succeed.

It’s time to return to core Jewish values and to redress the imbalance between Israel as a democracy and Israel as a Jewish country.