On Isru Chag Pesach 5709, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, Mr. David Ben Gurion, wrote a few lines to Harav Yitzchak Meir Levin, zt”l, the leader of Agudas Yisrael — which also served as a de facto coalition agreement between Mapai and the United Religious Front. He wrote: “Shabbos and mo’adei Yisrael will be the legal days of rest of the State of Israel. Those who are not Jewish will have the right to keep their days of rest and festivals.”
Rav Levin had to receive this in writing, because this was far from simple. Like every fledgling state, Israel had to adhere to and enact basic laws that would forge its path and its policies. Whatever was not enacted then would, over the years, generate polarizing disputes between Left and Right, the secular and the chareidi public.
For some reason, something that seemed pretty obvious was not enacted at the time: A basic law that determined that the State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish nation. Such a law has many ramifications, some of which have far-reaching effects on the way of life in the country. “Israel is obligated to preserve the Jewish heritage, among other ways, by the fact that the Jewish calendar should serve as the official calendar in the State and Jewish law should be a source of inspiration for the Knesset and the courts.” That opening sentence is clearly explosive, certainly today, 70 years later.
In his attempt to persuade his cabinet, Binyamin Netanyahu stated that: “The necessity of the law is underscored, especially at a time when there are those who seek to annul the right of the Jewish nation to a national homeland in its land, and the recognition of the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish nation.”
But as one who has been reliably supportive of the left, President Reuven Rivlin once again expressed his vehement opposition to the proposed law, especially against the clause that “authorize[s] a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.” In other words, to enable the establishment of cities and towns for Jews only.
“I am afraid of the broad fashion in which this clause is worded, without any balances,” the worried Rivlin wrote. “This might hurt the Jewish nation, Jews around the world and in the State of Israel, and might even serve as ammunition for our enemies. I ask also that we look inwards, within Israeli society: can it be that in the name of the Zionist vision we are ready to abet discrimination and exclusion of a man or woman based on their origins?” the president asked, forgetting for a moment his purely ceremonial and non-political position.
Last Thursday, MK Amir Ohana, chairman of the committee discussing the Jewish State bill, opened the meeting with harsh criticism: “I don’t know, listening to President Rivlin or Politician Rivlin, if there is even a difference between the two.” He emphasized that he respects both, but, in his words, this is hypocrisy.
The chareidi public is standing on the sidelines for now. It recognizes the State but does not need official recognition, and no basic law of any kind will change its approach to the State. The chareidim see the State as a benevolent government that uses its budget allocations to help Torah scholars and yeshivos. However, on the day that a detrimental draft law will be enacted, we will know that this is no longer a benevolent government, and therefore it will lose its right to exist.
We know with certainty that it is not a law that will determine our future here. The words of Rashi at the beginning of Chumash Bereishis are constantly in our mind’s eye: “So that if the nations of the world will say to Yisrael, you are robbers, because you captured the lands of the seven nations, they tell them that the whole land belongs to Hakadosh Baruch Hu; He created it and gave it to whom He saw fit. When He wanted, He gave it to them, and when He wanted, He took it from them and gave it to us.”
Why do we need this basic law or another? The land is ours, a gift from Hashem. On condition, of course, that we are deserving of it.