Time For a Reverse Birthright

Why Israel needs to send more Jews abroad

We already have heritage trips to Israel, so why not
Jewish heritage trips to the Diaspora? Israelis could learn about Jewish progressive politics and minority rights – and take the lessons home to boost their own democracy 

The Palestinian-Israeli Member of Knesset, Ahmed Tibi, used to enjoy saying that Israel is a democracy for Jews, and Jewish for Arabs. But lately Israel is raising questions about how democratic it is for anyone.  

The Nation-State Law ratified in July provides an exclusive right of self-determination for Jews in Israel, denying the same basic right to about one-quarter of citizens who are not Jewish. Over the last decade, Israel has passed laws, such as the Nakba law of 2011, that discriminate against both the Arab minority and civil society groups that advance progressive positions. Israel’s Justice Minister seeks to strengthen political control over the Supreme Court, which is regularly accused of being an “unelected elite”. 

These measures have caused great concern among diaspora Jews. Many American Jews, even those who are hardline on security issues wonder: what to do about the Nation-State law? How to explain the 5 a.m. detention and interrogation of a conservative rabbi in Israel for performing non-Orthodox weddings? Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism which represents over 600 Conservative congregations across North America, connected the two incidents in an angry post on Twitter: 

“Bet you didnt know that performing a non orthdox[sic] wedding in Israel is punishable by 2 years in prison? And now with new nation law, why wouldn’t… we be worried about Israel’s direction as a democratic State? Hhm?…” 

The American commentator Peter Beinart identified Israel’s half-century military occupation over Palestinians as a major source of alienation of liberal Jews. Others point to Israel’s rejection of the non-Orthodox religious denominations popular among diaspora Jews. Since small parties are always needed to form governing coalitions in Israel, ultra-Orthodox parties are routinely brought in as partners, and the governing parties give them a monopoly over religious affairs in return. But the last decade of democratic erosion points at a much deeper difference between diaspora Jewish sensibilities and Israel’s very DNA. The difference is so obvious it is banal – but it predates 1967 and is not limited to issues of religion, or Jewish pluralism. Quite simply, Jews in Israel are the majority.  It should therefore be no surprise that Israel has nurtured a form of democracy that structurally favours majority over minority protections. Nor that the manifestations of majority rule might one day go too far.  

Israel’s right-wing figures have taken to saying that true democracy is the will of the voters, by which they mean the will of the majority overrides other democratic institutions. When the police recommended indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last February on corruption counts, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely from the Likud party lashed out, saying, “the rule of law in Israel is first of all respect for the will of the people. You, the voting public in Israel, sent Netanyahu and the Likud to govern… in democratic elections. That was the will of the majority of the people.” Never mind that just 23% of Israeli voters chose Likud in 2015 – Hotovely’s point was that majority will has ultimate authority over all other branches of government, or institutions such as the police. Attempts to place the judiciary under greater political control falls under the same category.  

In practice, this commitment to being a majority has meant dismissal  of minority rights. Conversely, there is nothing more germane to the diaspora-Jewish experience than being a minority. And the minority experience cannot be extricated from the broad commitment among a wide range of diaspora Jews in the modern era to left-wing ideas, movements and causes.  

Israel’s Knesset, in Jerusalem, where right-wing figures have taken to saying that true democracy is in effect the will of the majority

This is not to imply that the presence and activism of minorities inherently keeps a democracy honest – it doesn’t: witness only America’s minorities and its entrenched systems of inequality. But neither does being a majority nation automatically entail suppression of minority rights. Numerous nation-states with a strong national majority go to some lengths to protect their minorities. Sometimes this is through guarantees of rights and self-determination for all citizens equally, as in France or Germany, while other nation-state constitutions explicitly recognise national minority rights, including for example Spain, Slovakia and Croatia. And while no country seems to have found the formula for perfect majority-minority relations, the ongoing negotiations and intentions are key. 

For Jews in Western countries, this commitment to protecting rights became embedded in diaspora identity. James Loeffler, in his new book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the 20th Century, traces the crucial role of Jewish legal figures in the construction of modern human rights concepts and international laws. One example is the Polish-British Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, a Zionist and tireless advocate for Jewish minority rights, who became a pioneer of international human rights law. Another, Jacob Robinson, was a prominent Lithuanian jurist and parliamentarian who reached the US in 1940, and consulted on the team that created the United Nations Commission of Human Rights. In both these cases it is hard to separate a commitment to universal human rights from the desire to protect Jews as a minority in the world, while supporting statehood for Jews as a complementary solution. 

But political consciousness, whether left or right, is not DNA. Attitudes are shaped by experience and historic circumstances. Therefore Diaspora Jews shouldn’t be surprised that an illiberal democracy in Israel is evolving in the direction of a tyranny of the majority. If Jews aren’t a minority themselves, apparently they aren’t fundamentally committed to minority protection – or other liberal principles for that matter. Who needs universalism when modern iterations, such as universal justice, might be used to prosecute Israeli officers for war crimes? What purpose do universalist notions of human rights serve when, as Loeffler shows in his latest book, they are almost impossible to extricate from political rights – at present, for Palestinians? A survey I conducted for human rights organisations in Israel in 2011 showed that 65% of Jews had a favourable view of the term “human rights.”  By 2016, when I next asked the question, support plunged to just 45% among Jews. Since then support has levelled out at around half – meaning that roughly half of Israeli Jews are sceptical of human rights. It is tiny but telling that in 2018, the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a decades-old organisation in Jerusalem named after the French Jew who authored the Declaration changed its name.  The erstwhile René Cassin association took pride in liberal, humanistic values. Cassin’s passionate commitment to protecting Jews was among the drivers of his pioneering work on human rights. But in 2018 the organisation fell on hard times and was transferred to the Jerusalem municipality and renamed “Lavie”, meaning  lion.  

The French-Jewish judge and law professor Rene Cassin, who co-drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN general assembly in 1948



It would be a mistake to attribute this shift solely to Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009, or to the more recent wave of nationalist populism in places like Hungary, Italy, Brazil, and the US. Majority rule and minority suppression in Israel isn’t part of that sudden wave – the country was designed this way from the start. Israel’s Declaration of Independence defines Israel as a Jewish state, but never mentions democracy. It does promise equality of all citizens, but the document has no legal force. Israel has avoided adopting a constitution ever since its founding – in large part precisely to avoid the question of citizen equality as a constitutional right. The Basic Laws that have been passed as a stand-in for a constitution do anchor certain rights, but none guarantees equality of all citizens. Moreover, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence was never implemented in practice; for the first 18 years of statehood, a large portion of Israel’s minority Arab/Palestinian population was governed by martial law and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel have suffered structural discrimination to the present.    

Jewish Israelis born in Israel have no experience of being minorities in need of protection; even for Israelis born abroad, the collective consciousness of Jews in Israel is one of a majority.  We have forgotten what it means to be slaves in Egypt. Diaspora Jews have no choice but to remember. Some will always believe that Jewish-majority sovereignty in its current form is the answer, others will conclude that, while a Jewish majority state may be needed, solidarity and universalism leads to a deeper kind of security.  

Understanding that Israel’s growing illiberalism is rooted in Jews being a majority could have practical consequences for those struggling to salvage a culture of liberal democracy. Left-wing Israelis shouting from the rooftops about morality, universal values and human rights won’t be sufficiently persuasive because their efforts are rooted in argument rather than experience. I believe we can do better, and there is one obvious way: Jews need to leave Israel. Of course I don’t mean transfer, a new diaspora, or any other form of engineering the destruction of Israel. But being in the diaspora as a Jew, even temporarily, might not be so bad.  

At present, massive Jewish community resources are poured into bringing diaspora Jews to Israel. Why? Israel needs help to build a stronger democracy, so isn’t it time to give Israelis the gift of being a minority again, instilling the values of solidarity at the same time? Why not establish programmes for young Israelis to go abroad for a few weeks, or even a year-long course? These programmes could send Israelis to work with minorities abroad – perhaps poor black communities in Baltimore, or Muslims in the banlieues in France, instead of finishing the army and rushing to the nearest falafel stand in Goa. At present, the only large-scale programme I know that sends Israelis abroad is March of the Living, which marked its 30th anniversary in 2018. The March has become a rite of passage for young Israeli Jews, who visit Poland and Nazi death camps. The programme instills the notion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and hammers home the theme of Israel as the triumphant answer to existential destruction in a way that isn’t likely to generate empathy for Israel’s minorities.  

Maybe it’s time to diversify the experiences of Israelis abroad. Joining the diaspora might not be a picnic for Jewish Israelis, given the devastating murders in a Pittsburgh synagogue, the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket killings and smaller disturbing incidents that are increasing of late: the swastika that appeared after Trump’s victory in a Brooklyn Heights playground near where I grew up is the kind of thing that has also shaken European Jews in recent years. Compared to 2012, more European Jews in 2018 say antisemitism is a problem in their country, including a 27-point rise in the UK and 95% total in France, according to a survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. 

You can’t forget the need for minority protection as a Jew in Trump’s America or in Europe today. But if Israeli Jewish reverse-Birthright participants can join their diaspora brethren, they might learn about the need for solidarity among all marginalised and targeted groups. They can study examples like the Muslim organisations that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victims of the Pittsburgh attack, just as Jewish groups in the US opposed the Trump travel ban on immigrants from Muslim countries. They could intern with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – HIAS – and absorb its abiding commitment to assisting refugees around the world, driven by Jewish values and historic experiences. Inter-group solidarity is not limited to America. The French government has bolstered the work of an inter-ministerial group designed to address racism, antisemitism and anti-LGBT crime together. The interdependence of minorities can be learned, and in so doing, the importance of governments taking responsibility for protecting minorities will become clear. Young people who learn that lesson will surely make better leaders for Israel in the future.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with Martin Luther King Jr. and Joachim Prinz. American Jews played a significant role in the civil rights movement.
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