This past Saturday I attended services at a large Reform congregation. As the Rabbi led us in a discussion of Israel’s controversial new nation-state bill, I remained silent. Issues of Israeli politics are for residents of Israel to decide, I usually tell myself. That’s been a convenient way of avoiding controversy. This time controversy seems unavoidable, however. Since the bill seemed to me to presume to represent the best interests of all Jews, we must talk about it.

Room in the Knesset, many desks with people sitting and walking around

The interior of the Knesset where, early on July 19, the "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People" was passed. Image courtesy of Itzik Edri.

The bill’s defenders in synagogue argued that many of its clauses, such as the fact that Israel is the home of the Jewish people, are already widely accepted by most Jews. Critics of the bill pointed out that other clauses, such as establishing Jewish settlement as a national value, are the source of deep disagreement. The bill’s critics also questioned the purpose of codifying values held by Jews if not as a basis for the exclusion of minority groups. The bill’s defenders in turn argued that the bill was passed by a democratically-elected body representing all of Israel.

As the discussion unfolded, I turned the pages of the synagogue’s prayer book to the beginning of morning services, to the list of Obligations Without Measure. “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward too, is without measure,” I read in the prayer book. Alongside widely extolled obligations in Judaism such as honoring parents and hastening to study is another obligation: to welcome the stranger. As I contemplated this obligation, the nation-state bill seemed a document in conflict with itself. As it affirms the Jewish identify of Israel, it subverts the obligation to be welcoming towards non-Jewish peoples.

In Leviticus, God speaks the following words to Moses: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (19:34). The Jewish people were born and raised in Egypt for generations. Yet Jews were strangers in Egypt separated by custom and deprived of rights. Through the Jewish ritual of Passover, Jews are taught to remember the time in Egypt as if each person were there. From this experience comes the obligation of Jews to not merely refrain from oppressing other peoples, but to treat and love them as themselves.

In a 2008 piece on the love of strangers in Judaism, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Emeritus Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, points to the social vulnerability of minority groups. According to Sacks, Talmudic sages argue that verbal abuse of strangers is worse than material abuse. Verbal abuse can destroy social bonds and alienate people. As such, verbal abuse, unlike material abuse, is without remedy.

Rabbi Sacks, who is Orthodox, does not specifically apply his insights in this piece to the obligations of Israeli Jews to non-Jewish Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, and other groups living in Israel. But the connection appears obvious. How can Jews recognize the obligation to love the stranger without critically examining the treatment of non-Jewish groups in Israel-Palestine?

The argument that the nation-state bill merely declares what is already believed by a majority group ignores the devastating effect of the words of the bill on minority groups. The bill establishes and reminds non-Jewish people of their exclusion. The relegation of the Arabic language to second-class status is particularly injurious in light of the Talmudic teachings on the severity of verbal abuses towards strangers. With the codification of an official language, every utterance of the dominant tongue serves to alienate the stranger within an unwelcoming land.

Rabbi Sacks identifies laws governing the treatment of non-Jewish people living among Jews as a form of minority rights. Indeed, a key feature that distinguishes democracies from majority-rule is protection of minority rights. The codification of the position of one group above others degrades minority rights and, by extension, democracy.

The obligation to love strangers in Judaism might appear in conflict with the teaching that Jews are a “chosen people.” But to be chosen need not mean to be entitled to special privileges or to be elevated above others. Rather, it can mean to bear special burdens, to be called to “righteousness” in order to serve as a “light for the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Jews are called to the highest possible moral standards of inclusion. A state that manifests Jewish values should not proclaim its Jewish identify to the exclusion of non-Jewish peoples. This paradox is an extension of the Jewish obligation to stand out as an example of inclusivity.

Rabbi Sacks is not alone in avoiding mention of Israel in discussing love of stranger. Even many leaders in progressive Jewish denominations are unwilling to make firm connections between Jew’s obligation to love the stranger and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and other groups.

The obligation to love the stranger applied to Israel might cause anxiety among Jews if it’s read as a form of assimilation that threatens the loss of Jewish identify. But inclusion does not mean abandoning customs. For example, a Shabbat celebration is enhanced by the inclusion of guests and strangers, which fulfills the mitzvah of hospitality, hachnasat orchim. Inclusion is not the end to Jewish identity; inclusion is the fulfillment of Jewish obligation.

A more concrete fear may be that if Israel becomes too welcoming a place, then Jews may become a minority in Israel. What then? Would Israel cease to be a Jewish land? Not if being a Jewish land means living by core Jewish values of mending the world and loving the other.

For a people that have endured millennia of persecution, the fear of becoming a minority in a place created in part for the safety of Jews is understandable. But the Jewish people have not endured for so long through political domination or military might. Indeed, the history of the Jewish people, which have outlasted empires, shows the temporality of these measures.

Perhaps the resistance to applying the Jewish obligation to love the stranger in Israel is not due to an existential fear. Perhaps it’s due to more mundane human tendencies towards exclusion for which the Jewish people’s history of persecution becomes a potent justification. In either case, we must remember that welcoming the stranger is an obligation without measure.

As Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, God at times asks us to show our willingness to give up that which is most precious to us.  Asking Jews to risk relinquishing absolute political control over the Jewish homeland may be the ultimate test of faith. Being asked to create an inclusive land after experiencing generations of exclusion may be a challenge worthy of a chosen people.

This past Saturday, I could hear congregation members’ efforts, at times strained, to maintain civility as they spoke passionately for and against the nation-state bill. This civility reflects a recognition that communities must remain united despite differences. One moment we were expressing our differences, and the next we were experiencing our unity over bagels and schmear. The Jewish peoples have diverse views, customs, and experiences. The nation-state bill not only threatens to alienate Jews from others but also from one another.

In codifying Jewish symbols, claims, and customs above others in law, Jews fail in the obligation to treat other peoples as themselves. As such, Israel falls further from the ideal of a Jewish state. The question is whether to affirm the Jewish state in name or in substance. In my view, a Jewish state means a state that manifests Jewish values, rather than simply proclaiming Jewish identify. A codification of Jewish values would affirm the equal rights and privileges of all peoples living in Israel-Palestine.

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Alex Gertner is an MD/PhD candidate in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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