Rabbi Josh Weinberg questions the relevance and purpose of Israel’s new Nation-State laws.
May it be Thy will, my God and the God of my fathers, to protect me against the impudent and against impudence, from bad men and bad companions, from severe sentences and severe plaintiffs, whether a son of the covenant or not. [The personal prayer of Rabbi Y’hudah HaNasi, BT B’rachot 16b].
I. Non-Orthodox Weddings in Israel
Last June, I officiated at a wedding in Israel for close friends, who were subsequently married in a civil union abroad in order to have their marriage recognized in Israel. A pending bill now in the Knesset calls for hundreds of rabbis and officiants like me to be jailed for such offenses. Jewish Home Member of Knesset Eli Ben-Dahan, the bill’s original author, rationalizes this unnerving legislation by explaining its purpose as ‘acting to aid those women who have been refused a get (certificate of divorce) by their husbands and for whom the rabbinate is unable to assist’. The stated goal is also to assist victims of other precarious matrimonial predicaments resulting specifically from outside-the-Rabbinate marriage authorities. (Currently, only the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate can marry Jewish couples.) Many of us believe that this bill is an attempt to level a blow to the growing phenomenon of young Israeli couples who seek their own Jewish religious wedding ceremonies-Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, and the rabbis who accommodate them-threatening the Rabbinate’s control. While this bill is unlikely to pass in the Knesset, it joins a growing list of bills that are of grave concern.
II. The Jewish Nation-State Bill
This much-discussed bill, delayed in the Knesset, seeks to define the identity of the State of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. This is not only superfluous, but seeks to place values of democracy and equality as secondary to those of Jewish nationality. The bill also attempts to establish Jewish law as a source of inspiration for the Knesset-which, in many instances, it already is in the Israeli Supreme Court. As the bill morphs from one version to another, we must watch closely.
III. Rounding up infiltrators or persecuting the strangers in our midst?
The original intent of the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law was to prevent the entry of Palestinian terrorists. The law was never lifted. The third amendment to this law, passed on January 10, 2012, and implemented in June 2013 expanded the definition of “infiltrator” to include Africans entering Israel through the border with Egypt. According to this amendment, infiltrators could be detained up to three years, and those from any country considered a “hostile enemy state” (including those fleeing genocide or oppressive regimes) could be detained indefinitely. A group of asylum seekers and human rights organizations brought charges against the state to the High Court of Justice in response to this amendment. In September 2013 the High Court of Justice voided Amendment 3, stating that the law “disproportionately limits the constitutional right to liberty determined in Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” (High Court of Justice [Israel], 2013).
The volley between the Parliament and human rights organizations did not stop there. Parliament passed Amendment 4 in December 2013, which determined that “infiltrators” entering Israel after this date could be detained without trial for up to one year. After one year they would be transferred to Holot, an open-detention camp, and held until they could be deported-either as the result of an improvement in the political situation in their country of origin, or until they signed a ‘voluntary’ return agreement. The distinction between full detention and open camps is that those in open camps may leave the premises, but must return three times a day for roll call and must stay overnight in the facility, which is closed from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. In effect, this prevents detainees from working, since the punishment for failing to attend roll call is to be sent back to a full-detention camp. In addition to picking up asylum seekers at the border, the government began to round up asylum seekers who had entered before December 2013, and placing them in Holot, causing panic among the asylum-seeking community.
In September 2014 Amendment 4 was struck down by the High Court of Justice, ordering the closure of Holot and voiding the one-year mandatory detention period for new entrants. In the decision, Justice Fogelman stated:
Every person, by virtue of being a person, has the right to human dignity…and infiltrators are people. And that needs explanation, let’s say it explicitly: infiltrators do not lose one ounce of their right to human dignity just because they reached the country in this way or another.
The 5th Amendment-passed two days ago-reinstates Holot as an open-detention center, reduces confinement to 20 months (with an evening roll call), and prohibits detainees from working. There is evidence that Likud’s Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, and Knesset Interior Committee Chairwoman Miri Regev are working together to push the amendment through the Knesset before its impending dissolution. On October 26, 2014, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to approve a bill that would allow the Knesset to override rulings by the High Court of Justice. This is seen as a direct response to the High Court of Justice rulings on Amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Bill. A day later, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on behalf of 138 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who have been held in Holot for over two years, prior to the High Court’s rejection of the 3rd Amendment, which ordered the release of all detainees.
Earlier this week, outgoing Finance Minister Yair Lapid said, “We have to treat refugees from Darfur as Holocaust survivors.” In that case, let’s not lock them up. The bill, hastily put together before impending Knesset dissolution, passed a key Knesset committee on Monday, paving the way to be voted into law.
While attention will focus on the upcoming Israeli elections of March 17th, we must not ignore what is happening now. These issues touch on the foundation of what it means to have a Jewish State and a Jewish society. Of course we will have our own opportunity to vote and have our voices heard in Israel. This matters, and we must stand up and be counted.
Published on RJ blog – Rabbi Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).