"What''s the matter with ''conversion in accordance with Halakha,” [Prime Minister Begin] asked?’
I. Zionist Israel
Israelis might be excused for identifying first with their country and not with Zionism’s script for Israel as “homeland” and “refuge.” Why, seven decades into statehood, expect Israeli Jews to be different from, for example, American Jews? But Israel did inherit a unique obligation with statehood, a mission unique in the world: to serve, protect and provide refuge to its endangered Diaspora.
This dual identity sometimes is missed or forgotten by Israelis and their politicians. Unmindful of impact on Israel’s Zionist mission politicians unthinkingly barter “inessential” ministries or laws for support by fringe elements of society in cobbling together a coalition government. Politically expedient, but disruptive of state-Diaspora relations. Zionism requires Israel both serve all functions of “state” for its current residents, but remain aware also of its role as caretaker of the homeland for the Diaspora.
In practice Israel has not failed either obligation, reached out to, and welcomed immigrations from Ethiopia, India and Russia; from local and distant Muslim states. It is in the ideological gray area between Israel-as-“Israeli” and Israel-as-“Zionist” that the state of the Jews sometimes comes up short. And it is to this concern that we now turn.
II. Religious challenge to Jewish identity
In 1997, fifty years after Ben-Gurion declared statehood, Israel’s political right finally defeated Labor and Likud’s Menahem Begin became prime minister. Soon after taking office he assured the Orthodox parties, whose support he sought and who assured his victory, that he would support their initiative to conform the Law of Return to Halacha.
Diaspora reaction was immediate. Since the vast majority of Jews living outside Israel are not Orthodox, so not define Jewish identity by strict Halachic observance, such a legal change of identity and status would create a breach between Israel and Diaspora. From his reaction it is clear Begin had not anticipated the issue. He invited a delegation representing the Conservative and Reform movements in America to meet with him in Jerusalem. The excerpts below were recorded by Conservative Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, a leader of the group:
“In 1977, the late Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel. It was public knowledge that Begin had promised the Orthodox leadership in Israel that, if elected, he would endeavor to change the Law of Return to insert the controversial phrase, "conversion in accordance with "Halakha" in the definition of Jewish identity.
"What''s the matter with ''conversion in accordance with Halakha,” he asked?’ To which the Conservative rabbi responded, "The Conservative conversions are in fact in accordance with Halakha. In Israel, however, Halakha is the exclusive province of the Orthodox and they will not recognize our procedures even though they are identical with their own...”
When the prime minister’s asked, "What''s the matter with ''conversion in accordance with Halakha?’” he described the distance Israel had drifted from its Zionist roots.
“Who is a Jew” legislation is no less than Israeli Orthodoxy’s effort to replace religion for nationality, theology over secularism. If successful then overnight one hundred years of Zionism would be undone and the State of Israel would revert to isolated Orthodox communities in Jerusalem and Safed begging for subsistence from a Diaspora they defined out of Judaism. Ninety percent of Diaspora (also Israeli) Jewry is not Orthodox so implementing Halakha as defining “Jewish identity” for the state is not just a cosmetic challenge to that “ninety percent:” it delegitimizes any stream of Judaism not in accord with the understanding of a tiny radical minority, is transformative of the identity of the state. In the end Begin appreciated this and withdrew his support for the Knesset bill. But “Who is a Jew” remains a priority of Israeli Orthodoxy, a continuing platform for any party seeking haredi support in creating a governing coalition.
III. Religious challenge to the Law of Return
Until the mid-1950’s the Ministry of Interior accepted children of marriages where the wife was not Jewish by religion as “Jewish” by “nationality” for purposes of issuing a national identity card (Teudat Zehut). It was the job of the rabbinate, not the state, to determine “religion.,. This began to change in the late 1950s:
“Faced with scores of cases of Jewish men (often Holocaust survivors) who had brought their non-Jewish wives to Israel, the Ministry of Interior often registered the offspring of these marriages as Jewish by "religion" and "nationality" if the parents declared their child to be Jewish. The attitude of the Ministry was that while as the child of a non-Jewish mother the child was not halachically Jewish, the Rabbinate would make that religious determination when the child was ready to wed… In 1960, new regulations by the Ministry of Interior stated that an individual registering as a Jew by "religion" and "nationality" must be Jewish according to halacha”
These “new regulations” coincided with control of the Interior Ministry changing from secular to Orthodox hands.
Brother Daniel: The first significant challenge to the Law of Return occurred in 1962. Oswald Rufeisen, a survivor and member of a Holocaust-era Zionist youth group was credited with saving Jews during the Holocaust. He converted to Catholicism and, as Brother Daniel, continued to see himself “Jewish by nationality.“ The Interior Ministry refused to accept him for “oleh” (immigrant under the Law of Return) status. He appealed to the Supreme Court which agreed that, based on his conversion, he had abandoned both Jewish religion and nation.
The Shalit Case: Benjamin Shalit, an Israeli naval officer married to a non-Jew, was next to take the Interior Minister to the Supreme Court. The couple considered themselves “atheists but part of the Jewish nation.” Their children, born in Israel, were Israelis but the Orthodoxy-controlled ministry left blank the spaces for “nationality” and “religion” on their identity cards. In this case the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor.
“Following the decision, in 1970 the National Religious Party introduced legislation in the Knesset to amend the Population Registry Law to decree that individuals registering as Jew by "religion" or "nationality" must be a "person who was born of a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism."
It was in response to this challenge to the states position on Jewish identity that the Golda Meir government introduced the 1970 Grandparent Amendment to the 1950 Law of Return. The Amendment clearly and unequivocally returned Israel to its Zionist foundation and mission.