Living Together: Jews, Christians and the Nation-State Law

If the newspapers are to be believed, the nation-state law is on everyone’s mind in Israel. Passed earlier this month by a very slim majority, it attempts to define anew the nature of the Jewish state. So far, much of the criticism and concern has centered around the Druze and much of the rhetoric has been about citizens who somehow “deserve better” because of their loyalty and military service.

This is a disturbing argument to make: rights cannot be predicated on patriotism, or national service, or how people define themselves.  After a few days of responses, especially from the Druze community, a significant piece of Israel’s Christian population also weighed in with a statement from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Latin Patriarchate is unequivocal in its condemnation of the new law. It focuses directly on the issue of rights and the failure of the law to make any guarantee of equal rights for minorities. That’s a fair criticism to make. The law – if it needed to be passed at all – could have, and more importantly, should have been better. All Israelis deserve more than this law. While I profoundly agree with the need to scrutinize and criticize the new nation-state law, it is especially unfortunate that several aspects of the Latin Patriarchate’s statement are simply unproductive and even inflammatory. Their statement has the potential to harm the fragile work done by those in Jewish-Christian relations.

For example, the Latin Patriarchate claims that “the [nation-state] law says that there are not equal rights between Jews and Arabs.” This is simply untrue. The nation-state law says nothing of the sort. The Latin Patriarchate’s statement also goes beyond playing fast and loose with the facts: their criticism takes an especially disturbing turn with the assertion that Palestinians are indigenous, and that Jews are not. This type of claim, that has coiled within it the intimation that the Jews are usurpers and occupiers of this land, is never helpful for fostering dialogue. The Latin Patriarchate statement also consistently calls Arab-Israelis “Palestinians,” a choice that sends a particularly confusing message to Jews. The statement is eager to speak for the rights of Arabs as citizens but refuses to actually call them Israelis. This particular lexical choice feels disingenuous and fosters separatism. In Israel, we should all be Israelis, with our distinctive religious-ethnic-national identities as well: Jewish, Druze, Palestinian, Circassian, etc.

All this is particularly concerning when, not even six months ago the Catholic Church –in a joint statement between the Custos Francesco Patton, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, and the Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian -suggested that Israel was acting like Nazis, in a “systematic campaign” of persecution against the Church in Israel.

Many Jews have watched with optimism as the Catholic Church underwent penetrating and challenging changes in its understanding of and relationship to Jews and Judaism. And many of those same Jews have participated actively in the development of a new era in Jewish-Christian relations. But unfortunately, for some Jews, the Latin Patriarchate’s statement is bound to confirm old suspicions that there is something deeply and irrevocably anti-Semitic at work in the Catholic Church. For those observers, no magisterial teaching, no papal statement, no Church document can change their mind. The historical wounds – both real and perceived – are simply too great.

A statement like this has the potential to harm the delicate Jewish-Catholic conversation with its provocative language. As an Israeli and a Jew, I completely understand Jews who are upset by the statement of the Latin Patriarchate, feeling it to be just another Catholic slap in the Jewish face. However, Jews who are committed to Jewish-Christian relations and yet are surprised by the statement misunderstand something fundamental about the nature of our challenges here.

It’s important for Americans to remember that what it takes to build and develop Jewish-Christian relations in Israel is profoundly different than what it takes in the West. Israel faces specific challenges in our ability to move this conversation forward locally. One of the basic facts is that some 80 percent of the local Christians in Israel are Arabs. This means that building better relations between Jews and Christian here is an unavoidably ethnic and political act. It is at least as much about “Jews/Jewish-Israelis” and “Christians/Arabs-Israelis” as it is about any religious categories of “Judaism” and “Christianity.”

Theological conversation is something of a luxury around here. The real challenge is how we can live together.

Sadly, the dynamic we enter into with this statement, one of Knesset action and Latin Patriarchate reaction, helps no one and just reinforces the worst expectations and fears of all participants. The politicians who drafted this law for their own purposes, were doing their job for their own stakeholders. The Latin Patriarchate, responding in protection of the faithful, was doing its own job for its own stakeholders. The question is how long will it take for someone to stand up and ask aloud when we can get past all the bravado and get on with the real mission of making the Jewish state work fairly and equitably for everyone.

Faydra L. Shapiro is the Director for the Israel Center for Jewish-Christian Relations and a Senior Fellow at the Philos Project. She can be contacted at faydra@philosproject.org

Photo Credit: Israeli flag via PxHere

 

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