(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Religious extremism and narrow parochialism have, for now, once again gotten the
better of reason.
It seemed that a temporary compromise had been reached
to avert the snowballing crisis between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel
over “Who is a Jew.” Late Thursday night, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s
office issued a statement outlining the compromise, which was similar to ideas
expressed in these columns and based squarely on reason: The two sides would
agree to a sixmonth moratorium on all legal and legislative action aimed at
changing the religious status quo regarding conversions to Judaism – namely the
Reform and Conservative movements’ petition to the High Court and Israel
Beiteinu’s conversion bill.
In the interim, a special committee would be
created, headed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, which would bring
together representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements with
representatives of the Israeli government. Through dialogue, the two sides would
hammer out their differences.
But Shas and United Torah Judaism,
unwilling to sit with non-Orthodox Jews, have rejected the proposal and vowed to
continue to back the conversion bill that would anchor in law the
haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate’s de facto control over conversions, the
delegitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions, and the very Jewishness of all
Meanwhile, Israel Beiteinu’s MK David Rotem, the
mastermind behind the bill, is being non-committal.
He apparently is none
too anxious to pit himself against the two haredi political parties, which enjoy
a steadily growing constituency boosted by one of the highest fertility rates in
the world. Besides, the Knesset is on summer recess until October and no bills
will be passed until then anyway.
The intransigence of Shas and UTJ is
not particularly surprising. UTJ’s Uri Maklev sees the alienation of
non-Orthodox Jewry that was caused by the bill as proof of its
even moderate religious Zionist groups have come out in favor of Rotem’s
legislation. Traditional-minded legislators from Likud or even Kadima
support it as well.
WIDE SUPPORT for Orthodoxy’s de facto monopoly over
religion in Israel goes back to the establishment of the state. Of all
secular Jewish movements that grew out of the Haskala, Zionism was the
need of cooperation with tradition.
Although Zionism rebelled against old
parochial modes of Jewish existence in its rejection of the exile, its
reestablish Jewish sovereignty and its goal of creating a “new Jew,” the
pioneering Zionists nevertheless needed tradition to explain the Jewish
special connection to the Land of Israel, to co-opt the idea of
to promote social cohesion.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime
minister, understood the centrality of tradition to Zionism and made a
the Orthodox establishment, giving it control over strictly religious
such as marriage and divorce, building synagogues and ritual baths, and
Secular Zionists, who were responsible for the creation of the state,
control everything else.
Reform and Conservative Judaism, foreign to the
vast majority of eastern European immigrants who made up the Zionist
was never an option. The waves of immigration from Muslim countries in
and 1960s made it even less so.
But while Ben-Gurion recognized the
importance of tradition, he was also careful not to allow the Orthodox
establishment to force on the fledgling Jewish nation an overly narrow,
exclusionary definition of Jewishness that would alienate Diaspora
1958, for instance, he asked dozens of scholars and thinkers in Israel
the Diaspora for their opinion on the relationship between religion and
To this day the question of “who is a Jew?” has remained
open. If it is to be resolved, it must be through dialogue and
through coercion or unilateral acts.