17 Dan Reisel

Dan Reisel

By Dan Reisel, Yachad

This week Israel’s newly-elected government took office. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has assembled a coalition of 61 Members of the Knesset, including Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) and two ultra-Orthodox parties.

Early signs suggest the new government is likely to enact legislation that will harm Israel’s democratic character and isolate Israel internationally.

The new government is likely to propose legislation that will change the tax status of foreign donations to non-governmental organisations in Israel.

In order to obtain tax-exempt status, such NGOs would need the approval of Israel’s defence minister and a parliamentary committee on security affairs.

The measure is widely seen as a way to financially impair NGOs critical of the occupation and who work for reconciliation with the Palestinians. Moreover, Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked – Israel’s new justice minister – has previously advocated for curtailing the influence of the Supreme Court.

Current law proposals, supported by Likud and Jewish Home, would give Israel’s Parliament increased powers to override rulings by the Supreme Court and more say in the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu has also said that he intends to resurrect the Nation-State Basic Law proposal.

Its original wording, drafted by the ultra-rightist Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin, defines Israel as ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people’, removes Arabic as an official language, gives preference to Jewish symbols and heritage and suggests Jewish law should serve as ‘inspiration’ for legislation.

The new government has also made it clear that it intends to continue to invest in the infrastructure of the settlements.

As part of the coalition deal, Bennett’s party was able to add 50 million shekels to the budget of the WZO’s Settlement Division, which funds infrastructure for West Bank settlements.

What are we, Jews who feel deeply connected to Israel but live outside, to make of these worrying developments? How are we to respond to this move towards the anti-democratic thinking of the Israeli electorate? While we have to respect the choice of the Israeli voter, we who live here still need to decide how we respond. UK communal bodies and interest groups will also have to decide what to do in this climate.

The answer cannot lie in keeping our heads in the sand. Israel benefits from a critically engaged Jewish world, and it is a foundational Jewish principle that we are all responsible for each other. Not only that, we are impacted by each other’s actions.

The midrash brings a famous parable: “A man in a boat began to drill a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. “Mah echpat lachem – what concern is it of yours?” he responded. “I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.”

They replied: “That is so, but when the water comes in, it will sink us all.” Israel’s new government seems committed to a political course that is likely to have disastrous implications for its democracy and standing in the world. We believe it is now urgent for all community stakeholders to work together to enhance the nature and quality of our Israel conversation.

More than at any other time, we now face a situation where we need to be able to talk honestly and robustly about Israel. Five years ago, just as Yachad was established, communal leader Mick Davis made it clear that he preferred a wide-reaching Israel discussion.

He warned that if Israel failed to achieve the two-state solution it would de facto become an apartheid state, because the majority would be governed by the minority. Yachad believes that the role of global Jewry is not just to praise Israel’s successes, but also to be part of the vital battle for Israel’s democratic soul.

We believe that the absence of a settlement with the Palestinians will have calamitous consequences for Israel. We believe it is our duty – Jewish as well as civic – to criticise discriminatory legislation and utterances that fall foul of democratic norms. With so much at stake, it is essential to distinguish between the policies of Israel’s government and Israel’s citizenry.

Indeed, it is because we care about Israel and its future, that we raise our voices against the tide of anti-democratic legislation currently being proposed by Netanyahu’s new hard-right government.