Leonard Fein thinks that the Law of Return is outmoded. He wrote me yesterday, in reference to my little spat with Bernard Avishai:
I don't dispute that the Law of Return was, as you say, the "raison d'etre" of Zionism. It is, in my view, an instance of entirely warranted affirmative action. But I believe about it what I believe about affirmative action more generally -- i.e., that it should be time-limited. Israel has enough challenges in living with the inevitable tensions of being Jewish and democratic that it should not be burdened by laws that no longer have much of a point. (And if, chas v'chalila, Argentina turns virulently antisemitic, it will be easy enough for the Knesset to pass a special law to cover the Jews in peril.)
And what say you to the lyrics of Hatikvah? Or to the new rule regarding Arabic place names on highway road signs?
I wrote back last night:
Hatikvah I've never liked. Too depressing. Arabic place names on highway signs are fine. Arabic is the first language of 20 percent of Israel's citizens. I'm not for a time-limited Law of Return, however. I recognize that it's a victim of its own success. It has had a transformative effect on the worldwide Jewish condition, no doubt. But I also think that even a non-persecuted Jew should have the right to fulfill his Jewish destiny in his historic and spiritual homeland. In any case, Jewish history should teach us that just because things are good today doesn't mean they won't be bad tomorrow. I'm not talking about America, obviously. But there are Jews in other parts of the world who shouldn't have to wait for a Knesset vote to find out if they're welcome in their ancestral homeland.
I was, by the way, kidding (well, half-kidding) about Hatikvah. Fein responded to my response late last night, in part because I misunderstood his reference to Arabic street signs:
Re: Arabic road signs: I was referring to the new policy, thanks the the Minister of Transportation. As you know, some localities have different names in Hebrew and in Arabic -- small differences, usually. Until now, each language has been rendered according to its speakers. Now, however, the actual Arabic is to be replaced with a phonetic transliteration of the Hebrew. Bye-bye to history and even a modicum of respect for the other. It is this kind of insensitivity that makes issues like the lyrics (not the sad melody) of Hatikvah as also the Law of Return increasingly urgent. (By the way, re: the melody: I attended the very first American concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra -- at Constitution Hall in DC -- back in '48 or '49. And boy, was Hatikvah performed triumphantly that night! I still remember the thrill.) So when I compare the anxiety that might attend a threatened community having to wait for a Knesset vote to the daily insult experienced by Israel's Arab citizens, it isn't quite a no-brainer but it is very, very close to one.
I think we'll continue to disagree on this last point. I don't think the "daily insult" Arab citizens feel because they're alienated by road signs and a Jewish-themed national anthem is actually more serious than the physical threats certain Jewish Diaspora communities may face. And I'd be moved a bit more by his appeal for "even a modicum of respect for the other" if, for instance, Arabs would recognize that the Temple Mount is actually the holiest site in Judaism. Or that Jews are actually from the land they call Palestine.
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