In her column, The scorpion in the Jewish world’s fire, Barbara Kay labels J Street, the U.S.-based liberal Jewish advocacy group, a “pernicious organization” infected by “fierce anti-Zionism.” Kay delegitimizes J Street members’ “nominal status as Jews,” describes the organization as a “political cabal” and compares it to a scorpion’s tail that stings Israel’s reputation.
What has irked Ms. Kay so? The answer is J Street’s criticism of the Netanyahu government’s nation-state law. On its website, J Street states that “[t]he new law asserts the primacy of Jews in the nation at the expense of the equal status of other citizens, and it erodes the very foundation of democracy on which the country was built 70 years ago.”
J Street also argues “[t]here was no need for this legislation: Israel was already a Jewish homeland. Hebrew is unchallenged as the primary language of daily discourse in every sphere of life. And this government – along with every other government in Israel’s history – already gave preference to the development of the Jewish population. Its main purpose appears to be shoring up Prime Minister Netanyahu’s status with right-wing voters ahead of possible elections later this year or next.”
I wonder why these statements stir Kay, and many others, to treat J Street with contempt. Is she being sincere when she argues elsewhere in the column that “debate and even quite aggressive internal dispute” are “normal behaviour amongst Jews”? If so, what’s the big deal about J Street strenuously opposing the nation-state law – a law that has outraged many in the Jewish world?
Kay cites Prof. Eugene Kontorovich, director of the Kohelet Policy Forum, an Israeli-based think-tank, who argues that the nation-state law’s provisions “mirror” those found in the constitutions of at least seven democratic EU countries. I looked into the constitution of one of them – Latvia. It is true that the preamble to Latvia’s constitution establishes the “unwavering will of the Latvian nation to have its own state and its inalienable right of self-determination in order to guarantee the existence and development of the Latvian nation, its language and culture throughout the centuries,” similar to the new Knesset law.
However, Kontrovitch fails to note that Latvia’s constitution includes a section titled “Human Rights” with 27 separate provisions, and that the preamble was appended only four years ago, after a contentious debate. Moreover, the Latvian Non-Citizens Congress notes that the report underlying the preamble implies that the Latvian state was founded solely by ethnic Latvians, and that any other ethnic groups only joined this “democratic project” later, which the Congress points out is historically untrue as Latvia has been populated by Germans, Russians and Jews throughout the centuries. By 1940, ethnic Russians already represented 20 per cent of the population.”
In Latvia, as in Israel, the issue should not pivot on a binary division between national self-determination rights on the one hand, and individual rights on the other. Minority community rights are also crucial. Latvia enshrines them in Article 114 of its constitution: “Persons belonging to ethnic minorities have the right to preserve and develop their language and their ethnic and cultural identity.” I am not confident that Israel mirrors this.
Let us admit a striking irony here. Members of the Jewish community in Quebec have a special appreciation of minority, community and language rights. This emerged from their hard-won establishment of hospitals, schools, social organizations and many more institutions. It is remarkable that some steadfast champions of these rights in Quebec are totally insensitive to the shrinking of minority rights in Israel.
The same flawed thinking motivated the influential French politician Count Stanislas-Marie-Adélaide de Clermont-Tonnerre to declare in December 1789: “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals. We must withdraw recognition from their judges; they should only have our judges. We must refuse legal protection to the maintenance of the so-called laws of their Judaic organization; they should not be allowed to form in the state either a political body or an order. They must be citizens individually.”
Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.
- an earlier version of this story featured an image of J Space Canada who are not in anyway affiliated with J Street.