‘LET’S DEBATE the meaning of the Zionist Idea today – in Israel and the Diaspora, then compare notes. It’s no longer about establishing the state; it should be about more than defending the state; it must be about perfecting the state.’.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It wasn’t the reason I moved to Israel, but the notion was comforting nevertheless. “If you want your grandchildren to be Jewish, come on aliya,” proclaimed the emissaries promoting the Jewish state as an antidote to assimilation.
Well, guess what? Forty-three years after making Jerusalem home, I’ve discovered that the come-on was enchantingly deceptive.
Just a few weeks ago, the government of Israel, in a dastardly act of betrayal of Jewish unity, voted to advance legislation that would render two of my grandchildren irreversibly not Jewish. That, in turn, would mean that they’d have no lawful way of getting married in the country they were born in and are being raised to love and protect. Why? Because their mother, my daughter-in-law, is one of the 330,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, and though she went through a Masorti (Conservative) conversion here she is not recognized as being Jewish by those whose rulings in these cases are what counts. Neither, then, are her two children. Nor the estimated 105,000 others like them, born here to mothers whose mothers were not Jewish and who have not converted under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
All of which means that the question of who is a Jew, and the nature of our Jewish state, can no longer be dismissed as being of concern only to Diaspora Jewry and adherents of the progressive streams of Judaism. Of the 6,484,000 citizens of Israel who are neither Muslim nor Christian, a whopping 435,000 (the original 330,000 non-Jewish immigrants and the 105,000 offspring of the women in this cohort) are not recognized by the religious authorities as being Jewish and cannot legally wed here. Sooner or later, this ever growing segment of our population is going to weave its way into all of our families, as it already has into mine (much to my delight, I might add).
Sure, couples in which one of the two is not recognized as being Jewish can go abroad to marry, or establish a legally binding relationship in a lawyer’s office in Tel Aviv. But what about those who do want to stand under the huppa here and be recognized in their homeland as husband and wife? Or those who will die serving our country, or who will be killed in a terrorist attack – or even in something as banal as a car accident – who will be denied a Jewish burial? That’s already happened far too often. It’s time, then, that we stop telling Jews abroad that if they don’t like the way we in Israel are handling matters of religion and state that they should come here and change things. It’s time, instead, that we recognize that the problem is ours, no less than theirs. That it is a serious one and that it is our responsibility to fix.
The encroaching influence of those adhering to an exaggerated rigidity in the interpretation of Jewish law, and who would impose their beliefs on the rest of us, affects every aspect of our lives here. It is at the root of the controversy over who has the responsibility for protecting this country, with the ultra-Orthodox by-and-large discharged from sharing the burden of its defense. It is behind the debilitating, Knesset-sanctioned acquiescence to haredi demands that their state-funded schools be exempted from teaching science, math and English – condemning their children to limited entree into the workforce, and the rest of us to supporting them. It is about whether or not the corner grocery store, neighborhood cinema and local bus line will be allowed to operate on Shabbat. It is about freedom of religion. And freedom from religion. But, back to the beginning, ultimately it is about my grandchildren.
Mine are only two and four at the moment, so I’d thought I had some time to change things before their weddings. Then came the proposed conversion bill which seeks to permanently enshrine in law the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over issues of personal status, making its determination in such matters immune even to decisions of the Supreme Court.
Indeed at present, a deal is in place that has stayed the pending legislation for six months. But a delay is not a solution. And the solution is long overdue. Witness this excerpt from a full-page ad placed by the Conservative Movement in The Jerusalem Post. “We call upon our fellow Jews in Israel to repudiate arrogant claims by any group that they are the exclusive custodians and interpreters of the Jewish tradition. Raise your voices and make it clear that you will not tolerate a monopoly on Judaism! Raise your voices and make it clear that you are determined to preserve the unity of our people.”
What makes this particular petition especially noteworthy is that it comes from an appeal published on July 19, 1974! That was just a few days after I made aliya, and I still have a very yellow original of it that I’d cut out and filed.
Yesterday’s news? No, tomorrow’s calamity. Unless we finally do what we were beseeched to do four decades ago: raise our voices and explain to friends, colleagues, and relatives that the brouhaha of the past few weeks, while stirred by our cousins across the ocean, has far more to do with those of us who live here than it does with those whom our government has so thoroughly estranged. It is we whose liberties are being threatened and, as Tisha B’av approaches, it is we who must stand our ground against the groundless hatred responsible for our destruction 2,000 years ago.
The writer is deputy chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization, and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational Center.