Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Whose Israel? Zionism, anti-Zionism and the struggle for the state

“This cabinet minister [Tourism Minister Levin: Jewry should have no role in internal Israeli affairs] has no understanding of historical Zionism. Zionism brought about a Jewish state for the larger Jewish people [and the] government represents more than just Israelis, especially in matters like this.” 


In 1947 David Ben-Gurion sought to shore up support in the Yishuv in order to provide a unified front in advance of the United Nations partition vote. Whether or not the two more moderate Orthodox groups would have actively opposed the emergence of Israel minus messianic intervention, B-G apparently chose to take no chances. In exchange for their support he agreed that the Ottoman era institution, the Chief Rabbinate, would be preserved following independence. He also invited two Orthodox parties to participate in the First Knesset, to convene following statehood. Both acts have had a profound impact, both positive and negative, on the evolution of Israel ever since.

Political Orthodoxy, whether “moderate” and “Zionist” or Haredi and anti-Zionist have been dedicated to creating a legal system for Israel based on Halacha. As Orthodoxy increasingly became the “go-to” alternative to compromise between the dominant secular political parties, so also increased their influence over the secular character of the state. Increasingly over the decades Israel has drifted from a liberal democratic model to one increasingly chauvinistic and intolerant of the non-orthodox, contemptuous of the Diaspora. As Orthodoxy grows more secure in its role in Israeli politics, Israel’s Zionist identity grows increasingly weaker.
This Introduction provides a framework for understanding this week’s government decision in favor of Haredi demands, and the government’s readiness to capitulate to those demands.

          The Kotel is the remaining retainer wall to the temple destroyed by Rome in 70 CE. As such it is a powerful symbol both religious and national. In late July 2017 that symbol underscored the growing rift between Israeli politics dependent on Haredi support, and Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora. A headline appearing in JPost in which ultraorthodox politicians warn against Diaspora “meddling”: Haredi Leaders: Don’t sit in U.S. and interfere with religion in Israel describes well the shift. And when the prime minister sought to patch together a “compromise” the Rabbinate’s representatives in the Knesset, Shas and UTJ, bolted. The degree to which Israeli politics has grown dependent on the tiny and anti-Zionist Haredim appears as a plea for understanding in the prime minister’s explanation to a delegation from AIPAC. JPost reports that Netanyahu was “presented with threats from Litzman, Gafni and Deri who came to him and said they would topple his coalition if he didn’t cancel the Kotel deal. Without them, he has no government.”

In face of the crisis, several Israeli observers concluded that the reaction of American Jewish leaders to Israel was excessive. As they see it, it is the Americans who created the issue. Caroline Glick, as one example, allows that while the government had reneged on its agreement with the Diaspora regarding the Wall, that in the end “it didn’t change the status quo. It just chose not to change it.” And, she concedes, while that might be wrong, “it doesn’t justify the vitriol being leveled at the government by American Jewish leaders threatening to rethink their support for Israel.” And while I agree that representatives of Diaspora Jewry be more circumspect in considering the consequences of their words, still is Caroline’s argument wrong on two points:

          1. Their reaction was not regarding the prior “status quo” but about the promise by the prime minister to change the status quo, and;

          2. July 2017 was not the first protest against Israel Orthodoxy’s effort to delegitimize the status of Diaspora Jewry. Every effort by Orthodoxy over the decades to make Who is a Jew basis for civil law in Israel was met with strong protest!

Where I do agree with Caroline is that the issue of the Kotel is more smoke than substance compared to the second decision of the prime minister that day. At his behest the coalition passed legislation expanding the authority of the Rabbinate over conversion: “ a bill granting the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly on conversion.” Should this legislation achieve final approval by the Knesset the Chief Rabbinate would have total control over Jewish identity for Israel and the underlying irritant since Orthodoxy first attempted to pass Who is a Jew will have finally have been enacted.

In 2009 then Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman promised an audience, composed of Orthodox legal scholars and the Chief Rabbis, that, “We will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the laws of the Torah and we will turn Halacha into the binding law of the nation… Soon, in the near future, amen.” Not even the optimistic Justice Minister could have imagined such would be achieved just eight years later, and by a secular nationalist government kowtowing to minority religious parties threatening to bolt the coalition!

Who is a Jew, whenever raised for a vote in the Knesset, would spark immediate protest from American Jewish leaders. Should the move provide the Rabbinate the authority it seeks over conversion the debate over Who is a Jew will have been decided and Israel’s appeal in the eyes of the Diaspora and, more importantly, that when that need arises Israel’s image as inhospitable will cause potentially fatal hesitation deciding on Israel as refuge

          Israel stands at a crossroads regarding its Zionist trust. Will the state of the Jewish People renew its obligations to our Diaspora or, on the crucible of political expediency, abandon Zionism and its obligations to the Jewish People? It is ironic, tragic, that David Ben Gurion, secularist “father of the country” failed to appreciate the danger to the new state by his compromises with Orthodoxy. But the dream of Zionism remains its need far greater today in the wake of the Holocaust than when Pinsker and Herzl recognized the need as response to continuing antisemitism following Emancipation.

It comes down to Israeli politicians and their parties’ willingness to compromise ideological purity for the good of the state and the Nation who will need refuge. And that need is not if, but when; whether or not today’s Diaspora is willing, or even able to appreciate the threat.

Religion does have a role in promoting Jewish identity. And the Zionist state was always intended for all Jews, even those who oppose on religious grounds the founding of the state not based on divine intervention. Zionism is tolerant and accepting even of such as the Neturei Karta who support Israel’s enemies against the state of the Jews. Israel was intended and created as refuge to all Jews, regardless of religious affiliation or not. The Law of Return in response to the Holocaust explicitly extends refuge also to non-Jews and their families threatened as “Jews” under the definition of the Nazi race laws.

The Haredim, favored in Israel's political circles, are unashamedly anti-Zionist. By action and word Israel-as-refuge for the Diaspora is both anathema and threat.
The aim of Zionism is not realized by the creation of its state. Its intent was to ensure the survival of a people who typically fail to appreciate their own state of danger (Germany following Hitler's election victory) until it’s too late. For centuries before the Holocaust, we had no means or destination of escape. Today there we have Israel. Whether appreciated or not, the Diaspora needs Israel. But when the time comes, the state of the Jews must appear welcoming, not ambivalent or, as at this moment, rejecting.

Who is a Jew is no less than the abnegation of the Jewish People and Zionism. It is, in the eyes of the Diaspora, rejection, a declaration of intent.

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