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Rabbi's Litmus Test: How Israel Treats Arabs

March 29, 2007
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Rabbi Marc Rosenstein
How Israel treats its 1 million-plus Arab citizens will ultimately prove the most significant measure of whether the state truly embodies Jewish values, according to an American-born Reform rabbi who made aliyah back in 1990, and now runs a foundation devoted to bridging the divide between Jews and Arabs.

"If Israel isn't a just state, then it won't survive," argued Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, a former Akiba Hebrew Academy principal, last week in Center City.

Rosenstein's March 21 talk at Congregation Rodeph Shalom was titled "Confronting the Basic Dilemma: Can a Jewish State Be Democratic? Can a Democratic State Be Jewish?" He began in a rather unorthodox way.

"If you're looking for answers, you've come to the wrong place," the Chicago-area native told the roughly 50 people who had gathered in the synagogue's chapel. Though this was an unusual admission for a speaker to make, it turned out to be the perfect prelude to the evening, since the program turned out to be not a structured lecture but a free-flowing discussion, with audience members often interjecting opinions on everything from the struggle of non-Orthodox Judaism to gain a foothold in Israel to whether the country needs a written constitution, which it currently lacks.

Rosenstein holds a doctorate in modern Jewish history and now directs the Galilee Foundation for Value Education, which, according to its mission statement, utilizes "informal education to build the Galilee as a model of civil society." He did make it clear that he views the tension between Israel's democratic and Jewish character as an ongoing debate -- one rooted in the country's own declaration of independence.

He also noted that Israel's founders were faced with a series of questions that have not been adequately resolved, including what role Jewish law would play in governing a Jewish state, and how non-Jewish citizens would figure into such a Jewish entity.

Under Israeli law, Arab citizens -- distinct from Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza -- are guaranteed full rights, although they've long complained of discrimination.

The issue came into sharp focus last month when Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel proposed a democratic constitution calling for the creation of a multicultural state; for Israel to acknowledge the Palestinian people's right of return; and for the country to invalidate its own law of return. Yet those measures would spell the end of Israel demographically as a Jewish state.

Rosenstein said he rejects the notion of "a state for all its citizens," arguing that the Holocaust proved that there must be a safe haven for Jews; still, he wants the country to be more than just that.

He asserted that most Arab citizens don't view themselves as Israeli, but that it's not too late to change that. He insisted that the state must navigate a delicate course: On the one hand, it must embody Jewish values in order to have meaning; on the other, it must create a transcendent Israeli identity with which non-Jewish citizens can identify.

He didn't, however, suggest ideas on how to go about that.

Still, Rosenstein offered one policy proposal -- amend the parliamentary system by switching from an at-large entity to one where legislators represent geographic areas, so residents can call someone directly when they have complaints.

For the most part, the audience reacted favorably, and appreciated the chance to vet their thoughts on the matter.

But while Rosenstein himself was never shy about criticizing Israel -- he took a brief swipe at the ongoing security barrier -- he did seem a bit uncomfortable with gripes leveled from abroad.

"There are two reasons to make aliyah," he said. "One is for the cucumbers. The other is to be able to criticize Israel without feeling guilty." 

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