We must combat extremism in Israeli politics

Israel is at a critical crossroad in its development: the country can either lapse toward a culture of extremism, or it can continue its history of middle-of-the-road pragmatism.

But we are, no doubt, at a tipping point.

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The proposed Nation-State Law is a perfect example of how we are standing at that crossroad. Israel has walked a very delicate line for the past 70 years – it is not easy finding the balance between being a Jewish state and a democratic state that provides equal rights for all its citizens. But for the most part, the country’s leaders on both the Left and the Right have managed to do so. The Nation-State Law seeks to upset that balance and empower extremism on both sides of the political equation.

The overall concept of cementing into constitutional law the notion that Israel is a Jewish state is a welcome step, and courts should be bound to keep this ideal in mind when making decisions. However, a law of this kind should take every measure to reassure the country’s minorities that their status won’t change. But the proposed legislation does the exact opposite, because of two clauses: by promoting Hebrew as the country’s official language while downgrading Arabic to secondary status, a message is being sent to the country’s 20% minority that they are not as equal or perhaps even not as welcome as they were before. The same with the clause indicating that neighborhoods can be legally established with the official exclusion of unwanted populations.

This not only puts off the country’s non-Jewish minorities, but can be used as a basis to discriminate against Jewish ethnicities and populations as well.

Aside from these clauses emboldening the discriminatory stance of Jewish extremists, this legislation would also give power to the Arab extremists. Any act which makes Arabs less comfortable in Israel leads to the emboldening of the extremist Arab leadership, which preaches that they will never be welcome or equal in a Jewish state and therefore they must combat its very existence. Thus, because of those two clauses which are driven by extremists and not Israel’s pragmatic, moderate majority, our chance to live in peace with Arab citizens in Israel decreases. Instead of cementing Israel as a Jewish state, we will cement continued tension, at times violent, with the country’s minorities.

Extremists are also driving the agenda when it comes to religion and state. The fact that ministers – including those who don’t live a religious lifestyle – are recusing themselves from serving on the committee which will implement the Western Wall compromise and provide a plaza for non-Orthodox prayer demonstrates that extremists are driving the agenda. The pragmatic, moderate majority of Israel understands the importance of Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, and that providing them with a platform that makes them comfortable for prayer hurts no one and only helps strengthen this vital connection.

Secular extremists have also been flexing their muscles. The controversy surrounding the Chabad Hassidic movement having a barrier between men and women at its event in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv was driven by an ideology of secular coercion. Under the guise of protecting women, the mayor of Tel Aviv and numerous secular organizations sought to prevent these hassidim from holding an event according to their religious standards.

Ironically, the demand that the event be held without a barrier to separate the genders would have prevented religious women from attending! Once again, most of Israel respects the right of people to live as they choose and had no problem with the barrier at that event.

In each of these examples – and there are many others – the courts step in and force the more moderate approach. The Supreme Court will not allow the Nation-State Bill to continue as is, and those extreme clauses will have to be removed. The courts have already required that a solution of equality be found for the Western Wall, and they allowed Chabad to hold its event with the barrier between genders.

But it is unhealthy for Israel to be governed by extremist ideologies, and then rely on the courts to pull things back to the pragmatic center. The citizens of Israel must speak out against the extremist tendencies which have crept into its leadership, and demand the return of the balanced, reasoned and moderate policies which have been the hallmark of Israel’s first 70 years.

The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.