“…in a few decades most of the Jews in Israel will be religious… So to really join the Israeli society will entail real conversion.” Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud)
While many of my recent writings have focused on the Christian roots of antisemitism and the Holocaust, my real subject is the future survival of the Jewish people, Zionism. And while I believe that our survival depends upon understanding of the place of Judaism within Christian theology, and how that theology impacted on our experience of persecution in the Diaspora, I also fear that Israel, the Diaspora’s creation as refuge for our threatened, is compromised by Israeli politics. This article addresses one such concern. “…in a few decades most of the Jews in Israel will be religious… So to really join the Israeli society will entail real conversion.”
Before statehood orthodoxy worldwide, including within Eretz Israel, was generally opposed to Zionism and the creation of a secular homeland and refuge for Diaspora Jewry. Faced with the 1948 fait accompli Israel’s orthodox minority redirected their challenge to the secular character of the Zionist state. To even begin to understand why Diaspora Jewry are offended by what coalition chairman Elkin derisively refers to as the “so-called conversion bill;” to understand why the Diaspora might feel it a “slap in the face” for Israel to even consider such legislation, it is necessary to recognize just how far Israel has, over the decades, drifted away from its Zionist roots.
In the sub-heading to its article discussing the conversion “impasse” JPost writes, “Insiders to unity talks between Orthodox MKs, non-Orthodox movements and Jewish Agency say they are not bearing any real fruit.” Except to these “unity” talks one of the parties, Israel’s Orthodoxy as represented by Shas and United Torah Judaism, chose not to participate.
In fact Binyamin Netanyahu had promised passage of the bill during coalition negotiations with the religious parties. And except for the unfortunate timing of the vote, “[a period] of particular tension between Netanyahu and the administration of US President Barack Obama, and voices from the North American Jewish communities subtly insinuated that their support and efforts for Israel on Capitol Hill would be made more difficult if such a bill… became law,” it is very likely that the “conversion bill,” only a stalking horse for “Who is a Jew,” would today be law of the land.
Elkin’s remarks were made before an audience of Orthodox rabbis and, as chairman of the governing coalition, his comments must be taken to represent official government policy. I discussed in some detail the process by which Israeli politics have drifted towards Halacha as state law in an earlier submission. Although Ben-Gurion was the first to open coalition politics to Orthodox influence, the process speeded up considerably with the 1977 election victory of Menachem Begin. “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 Halacha’ in the definition of Jewish identity.” In the end both Begin and Netanyahu both were forced to step back from their commitment because of American Jewish opinion, and Halacha has so far remained distinct from state law.
Israel’s drift from Zionism is perhaps not surprising since the term “Zionism” itself has all but lost its original meaning in Israel and the Diaspora. Conceived as a response to the relatively “tame” threat of 19th century pogroms, Pinsker and Herzl could not imagine the radical solution to the West’s Jewish Problem that would be attempted merely four decades in the future. Yet today, six decades following that event, the Holocaust’s implications for future Jewish survival are all but overlooked. According to conventional wisdom from Israel to California Zionism culminated in the creation of the State of Israel. Today’s Zionist shell has, with rare exceptions, become a domesticated Diaspora “pride” focused on Israel; and for Israelis the designation for Israeli nationalism.
But is 19th century Zionism’s radical vision of the risks facing Jewish survival no longer applicable? Is the purpose of building a Jewish homeland to serve as refuge for our Diaspora fulfilled? That certainly appears the case according to the machinations of Israeli politics!
In 2009 the Jewish Agency released results of a survey stating that, “Anti-Semitic incidents in western Europe peaked to a level not seen since the close of World War II.” And perhaps not surprising there has also been a resurgence of right-wing political parties with an antisemitic agenda. While evidence that another Holocaust is imminent is not present, neither is there the comfort of knowing that the antisemitism that inspired the Holocaust has itself vanished. In fact all evidence indicates that not only were the pioneers of Zionism correct in their analysis of the dangers to our Diaspora, but the threat continues… and will continue so long as Jews choose to live in the Diaspora.
Israel’s political institutions and leadership have lost contact with the state’s Zionist mission, its Zionist roots. The Diaspora created the state not as a home for its current residents, but for the entire Jewish people regardless of degree of adherence to Halacha. In 1970 Ben-Gurion commented that the new “Grandchild” amendment to The Law of Return is Israel’s response to Hitler, that the Law and its Amendment “are the heart of what defines Israel.”
If our Diaspora believes that the present state of relative calm and acceptance it finds itself in represents its eternal future, well that is just the human condition. German Jewry also believed that their fatherland was “exceptional.” Was not German Jewry the most assimilated, intermarried and accepted Jewish community at that time? How many foresaw what awaited their community and every Jew within reach of Germany’s inspired dream?
Which brings us back to the “conversion law” and its significance as an issue of Zionism: Israeli secular parties are voluntary hostage to Orthodoxy for coalition creation. And the reason is clearly that it is politically cheaper to buy religious support on the backs of our Diaspora than to compromise ideological “principles” with secular parties ideologically hardly distinguishable from themselves. And so “Jewish identity according to Halacha” becomes an internal matter for the state without regard to its impact on our nation beyond.
Which is the real message delivered by the coalition chairman before his audience of orthodox rabbis: the government lost this round in the debate over Who is a Jew. But not to worry, “[victory] will come, but in the next generation… [because] in a few decades most of the Jews in Israel will be religious… So [for future “Jewish” immigrants] to really join the Israeli society will entail real conversion.”