Scholar to parse debate on Israel’s proposed National Identity Law, human rights

Leonard Hammer
Leonard Hammer

As an Israeli lawyer and legal scholar for more than two decades, Leonard Hammer, Ph.D., is well-equipped to discuss Israel’s complex juncture of religion and democracy. Hammer, the David and Andrea Stein visiting professor of modern Israel studies at the University of Arizona, will speak on “Israel’s Proposed National Identity Law and Human Rights” at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on Sunday, Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. His talk is sponsored by the Weintraub Israel Center, a joint program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and the JCC.

“The proposed National Identity Law is basically why the [Israeli] government fell apart,” says Hammer, referring to Israel’s upcoming March 17 elections. “I’ll be talking specifically about the broader implications regarding the character and nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. It’s a huge debate in Israel, and it’s a messy debate.”

For example, an Israeli law passed in 1992 on the nature of human dignity has implications for a democratic Jewish state. “It’s an anomaly. Anytime you have a religious overlay it’s going to impinge upon human rights, also on gender rights,” he told the AJP. “In an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood they don’t want buses riding on Shabbat. On one hand, hey, it’s a Jewish state, reflecting the Jewish day of rest.

“In a democracy, you have the right to have freedom from religion and how it affects the individual. What if a person is poor and can’t afford a car, how is that individual going to get around? Imposing our view of Shabbat [on others] is a real conflict.”

Since his first one-semester stint at the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies in 2011, Hammer, 50, has returned in 2012, 2013 and now in 2015. He is an adjunct professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg School; serves as the academic director of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center; and as an international expert for the Open Society Institute.

He holds a J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, a master’s in law from New York University and a Ph.D. in law from the University of London.

Hammer was born in San Diego and grew up mainly in upstate New York. He made aliyah in 1988, when he became the law clerk for Israel Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon.

In his Feb. 15 talk, Hammer says, “I will explain the structure of Israel’s human rights. I will provide different viewpoints from the Israel Supreme Court. Then I’ll jump into what else might happen if the [National Identity] Law is passed.”

Teaching at the UA during these past few years “has been a productive time for me,” says Hammer, who is the co-editor of “Sacred Space in Israel and Palestine: Religion and Politics” (Routledge, 2013).

Starting this summer, he and David Graizbord, a UA associate professor in Judaic studies, will lead a study abroad program between the UA and Hebrew University. For more information, call 626-5785.