The debate over Israel as Zionist is most visibly represented by a tiny segment of Israeli society with a disproportionate influence regarding social policy. The distortion has its roots, ironically, in the days before the UN partition vote with the secular Labor Zionist leader of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion. In November, 1947 it was far from certain that partition would pass, with the US government, and particularly the State Department, opposed to a state for the Jews. Ben-Gurion set out to at least present a united Yishuv (the Jewish community living in Palestine) in advance of the United Nations’ vote. For this he needed to enlist the participation of the two Orthodox parties into the government that would follow Israel’s declaration of statehood. On June 9, 1947 he asked them to join the First Knesset, and in exchange for their agreement he promised:
“The future government
will do all it can to make sure that the religious demands be answered concerning personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce, and conversions. The result of this promise was that the Chief Rabbinate has authority over personal status issues and religious law governs marriage and divorce. This agreement continued the policy established during the Turkish and British era (emphasis added).
“The status quo agreement was accepted with the understanding that the assurances given by Ben-Gurion could be altered with the adoption of a constitution.”
But the same “1947 assurances” created today’s Orthodox-Secular divide within Israel and put adoption of a constitution on indefinite hold.
Voting in Israel is based on party ideology, not politician personality. The party that wins the most votes is usually chosen by the president to form the government. Since no single party has ever approached the 61 seat majority needed to form a stable government, the party chosen relies on smaller parties to bring about the majority to govern. In terms of politics the Orthodox parties are less interested in “political” than “social” issues, which makes them less of a threat to core political issue, demand fewer compromises. Such a system provides smaller, now swing parties, disproportionate influence in promoting their own narrow agenda.
One important interest of Israeli Orthodoxy has always been to determine religious identity for the state. The vast majority of Israelis are non-Orthodox and overwhelmingly oppose the “Who is a Jew” legislation. More important, the contest over “Jewish” identity within Israel creates a divide with the Diaspora and could, at a time of crisis challenging Diaspora physical survival, cause hesitation by Jews unconvinced of their “welcome” in Israel.
In an effort to bridge the gulf between haredim and secular in Israel an American-Israeli haredi rabbi, MK Dov Lipman
, recently supported a series of measures,
“that would roll back privileges long enjoyed by haredim in Israel, notably exemption from the military draft and the public funding of their schools [funding to be contingent on providing courses in such core “secular” topics as math].”
Disowned by his American head of yeshiva, an Israeli haredi journalist wrote,
“It’s very hard for me to understand someone who is haredi being part of a party that signs off on these positions on conversion… ”
As mentioned, in 1970 the religious parties demanded that all “convert” immigrants undergo a second, “halachic” conversion in order to appear as “Jewish” by nationality on their Teudat Zehut. To which challenge the government amended the Law of Return to reinforce its Zionist intent, and specified that a,
“child and a grandchild of a Jew
, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.. . . ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”
The Law and its Amendment closed any doubt regarding the commitment of Israel towards ALL Jews, and those also defined “Jewish” under Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws. But there is also an effort by some among the secular elite to change, and even eliminate the Law of Return:
“The most widely accepted proposal
for amending the Law of Return is the annulment of the "grandchild clause," such that the non-Jewish grandchild of a Jewish grandfather would not be able to immigrate to Israel, or at least would not be able to do so without his parents or the Jewish grandfather.”
One such “secular” critic is Ruth Gavison, a professor of law at Hebrew University and former candidate for the Israel Supreme Court. In an 86 page paper that appeared in 2010,The Law of Return at Sixty Years: History, Ideology, Justification
, she describes the Grandparent Clause as “too broad.” Gavison would amend the Law of Return to not grant automatic citizenship to olim (immigrants).
But secular criticism of the Law of Return is not limited to private citizens. The controversy originated and is fueled by successive government initiatives:
"In the last Knesset
[this from a 2005 article], Justice and Immigration Minister Tzipi Livni submitted a bill that would annul [emphasis added] the grandchild clause … Livni was not alone… The present deputy education minister, Michael Melchior, served as chairman of the ministerial committee on conversions to Judaism in the government of Ehud Barak. At that time, Melchior submitted to the prime minister a proposal of his own to reduce the scope of the Law of Return.”
Although the traditional support base for the religious parties is Likud and the Israeli Right, Tzipi Livni is generally considered from the “left,” and Michael Melchior has even stronger credentials as an advocate for social justice and, ironically, commitment to strengthening bonds between Israel and the Diaspora! As regards government initiatives to eliminate the Grandparent Clause:
“Ten years ago , an internal committee in the Justice Ministry drew up a proposal to reduce the possibility of non-Jewish grandchildren and family members being naturalized under the Law of Return.”
If private citizens and individuals within the government are guilty of actions harmful to Israel’s Zionist identity; if individuals would omit from law Israel’s responsibilities as refuge to the Diaspora, how understand the Government of Israel being party to the effort?
Israel’s Declaration of Independence
includes instructions designating 1 October, 1948 as the date the Knesset should have presented a constitution for a vote. For various reasons, principally the question of “religion and the state,” the proposed constitution “failed to get out of committee.” The most ambitious effort to create a constitution may have been that of 2010. Prime Minister Olmert instructed Menachem Ben-Sasson, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, to prepare a constitution in time for Israel’s 60th Independence Day celebrations.
“The panel began its work
with a document that was drafted by the committee during the previous (16th) Knesset… the previous committee drafted more than 1,000 pages that included three versions of the constitution proposed by the Israel Democracy Institute, the Institute for Zionist Strategy and the Israel Religious Action Center.”
In the end Ben-Sasson’s Committee failed for reasons already described, "religion and the state." But tellingly, as regards the Law of Return,
“the prevailing trend in the committee is for the constitutional section on this to be very general, in order to leave out the question of "who is a Jew... [but to] present the Knesset with a new Law of Return that omits the grandfather clause … but includes a clause enabling anyone who is a member of a Jewish community to immigrate, even if he is not halakhically Jewish.”
Certainly a “politic” response to the anticipated firestorm that conditioning the Law of Return on Halacha would ignite in both Israel’s Russian émigré community and the Diaspora; and particularly the "interfering” (as described by haredi politicians) Americans!
But as a document representing Israel’s approach to its post-Holocaust obligations Ben-Sasson once again represents an erosion of “Israel as Zionist.”