Saturday, July 15, 2017

This article was written in January, 2017. Not posted at time of writing, it should appear as first in the present series. 

Israeli Post-Zionism and its abandonment of Diaspora Jewry

“Politically, Netanyahu is right, any future prime minister will have to have the haredi parties with them. You can’t have a right-wing prime minister without the haredim.”

When I first arrived in Israel in 1960 it was “in” for teens and young adults on my Ichud (Mapai) kibbutz to refer to Zionism as passé. Surprised, maybe even a bit “offended,” still I dismissed the attitude as youthful rebelliousness. That was Israel twelve years after Ben-Gurion declared the state. Tnuva, the dairy collective for kibbutzim still flew the red flag next to the Israeli flag at their Tel Aviv facilities. Tensions over religious intrusion on the social life of secular Israelis; concerns over an anticipated not distant “kuturkampf,” consequences of  Ben-Gurion’s “compromise” exchanging  Orthodox participation in the Knesset for Yishuv unity in anticipation o the 1947 UN Partition vote.

Sixty-nine years after the First Knesset the consequences to Israeli democracy and society of inclusion of religion in government are profound. In 1947 it was rationalized, with some justification, that the two religious parties invited were “Zionist.” Certainly the National Religious Party was, and likely remains. But even the “moderate” NRP, once provided the platform of the Interior Ministry, set as priority determining Jewish identity for the state, and for the Diaspora. A series of Supreme Court decision provide background to the ministry refusing to issue even a Teudat Zehut (identity card) to an immigrant not providing evidence of an orthodox conversion in accord with the Chief Rabbinate. It was NRP, not the haredi parties, that introduced Who is a Jew legislation in the Knesset. Anti-Zionist haredi parties, later dominating the Chief Rabbinate, just made the effort to install Israeli Orthodoxy as the “official” stream of Judaism for state and Diaspora more publicly strident.

Likely the most egregious attempt by haredi politics to dictate identity for Israelis occurred in May, 2008 when the authority of Israel’s official conversion court headed by NPR’s Rabbi Haim Druckman was challenged by the Chief Rabbinate’s Supreme Rabbinical Court of Appeals for his lack of rigid compliance to halacha and Who is a Jew. The Court’s three “judges” issued a 50 page verdict which overturned the conversions of 40,000 Israelis made over a ten year period. Rabbi Druckman, a highly regarded rabbinic scholar and member of the orthodox National Religious Party was accused of performing conversions that failed to meet halachic standards!

40,000 Israelis overnight no longer “legally” Jewish, their marriages declared illegitimate, their children now bastards according to the Chief Rabbinate.

Whenever the issue of Who is a Jew is raised in Israel the Diaspora responds with outrage at the legislation’s intent to deprive them of their identity, of the legitimacy of their religious practice. In response to this particular action by the Chief Rabbinate even,

the main body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, which traditionally views the Israeli Chief Rabbinate as a definitive religious authority, issued a rare rebuke of the rabbinate’s religious court, saying in a formal statement that the court’s ruling and tone were “beyond the pale,” “create a massive desecration of God’s name” and “are a reprehensible cause of widespread conflict and animosity within the Jewish people in Israel and abroad.”

Rabbi Druckman, who had reached retirement age a year earlier and only stayed on at the request of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, once the haredi parties demanded the government compliance with the Rabbinate the prime minister did what any politician wanting to remain in power would, and fired the rabbi.

The list goes on. In January, 2016, in an effort to satisfy Diaspora demands that the Western Wall be available for prayer by all Jews, the Knesset passed legislation setting aside a small area of the Wall, the Robinson’s Arch, for “pluralistic” prayer. Its passage was followed in December, a month before enactment, by a bill introduced by Shas to block use of any part of the Wall to non-orthodox prayer.

“The legislation would criminalize anyone participating in progressive prayer services at the Western Wall, including the Robinson’s Arch area, who would be liable to prison sentences and hefty fines.” [It is recognized that the bill will be] “a disaster abroad (the Diaspora) but it’s a necessity here… You can’t have a right-wing prime minister without the haredim” said the official.”


At what price political expediency? Israel was created by the Diaspora in response to antisemitism following the Emancipation of the Jews, particularly in the 19th century. Political antisemitism, the West’s reaction to including Jews in society, was the background to the election of National Socialism and the murder of our six million. As we look around today can we say antisemitism is no longer? Are Jews in the US confident that their security is assured by the legal machinery upon which they place their faith? FBI statistics demonstrate that Jews are targeted four times more frequently (60%) than our closest neighbor in persecution, Muslims (14%).

Regardless of how America’s new president turns out, whether he sympathizes or rejects them, Donald Trump’s populist appeal served as a magnet for radical-right fringe elements who identify as racist and antisemitic. And for Jews, barely 70 years since Auschwitz and aware even as denying the Holocaust as evolved from two-thousand years of persecution inspired by anti-Judaism and Judeophobia are understandably skittish, concerned that no country, not even their own, may turn out to be exceptional.

And what if the unthinkable actually does occur, that Jews in the United States at some point in the future are threatened as Jews for centuries, as happened in Germany? How will they view their options? Israel will, as countless times since 1948 encourage and accept all as choose to come. But how many, viewing Israel represented by Who is a Jew, may hesitate and, as German Jews who hesitated before them, how many will be lost?

This is the issue before Israeli leaders, whether to adhere to its obligations as the expression of its Zionist identity as welcoming to all Jews refuge, or to continue to play the coalition shuffle of choosing anti-Zionist haredi parties because the political cost is less than the demands of political compromise with opposition secular parties. Commitment to Zionist ideals, or to selfish and transient political rewards? 

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