The nation, religion and state – what’s new?

It is a tragedy for the rest of us because it will contribute mightily to the atomization of our identity.

June 22, 2013 22:46
POTENTIAL CONVERTS attend a Jewish studies class. The conversion bill is meant to make their transit

Conversion 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Some 250,000 Israeli citizens who consider themselves Jews are not Jews according to Jewish law, and more than 90 percent of them have no desire to convert. Their numbers will grow with time, and at an accelerated pace. Over the past three years, fewer than 4,400 people per year have converted, and less than half of these are from the core group cited, which includes 90,000 under the age of 18 who are second- generation Israelis.

This is a tragedy for the nation. It is a tragedy for those in the group because it causes them, their children and their loved ones unnecessary pain and hardship in the life-cycle events of marriage, parenthood and death. It is a tragedy for the rest of us because it will contribute mightily to the atomization of our identity.

For thousands of years, we have been a religion and a people, a culture and a nationality.

While those outside our ranks would have us reject the various components and confine ourselves to a single characteristic, our historical choice has been to harmonize and retain all elements of our multi-faceted personality.

It is true that at any given time, most of us have opted to prioritize or to choose and select, becoming cultural Jews, Hebraic Jews, ethnic Jews spiritual Jews and agnostic Jews, to mention only a few – but almost none of us is more than two or three generations removed from the traditional Jew combining all of our Jewish personality traits. This is true today, and this has always been true. All other Jews have disappeared.

One can perhaps read about them, but one cannot find a living remnant.

So what do we do about this problem, other than write about and bemoan it? Monday, a new Knesset lobby opened for business – the lobby of the Nation, State and Religion, headed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) and MK Isaac Herzog (Labor). The inaugural session was attended by many organizations and prominent individuals. It commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Gavison-Medan Covenant and both Prof. Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Yaakov Medan spoke, as did Justice Minister Tzippi Livni.

Too often in the recent past, the formation of lobbies has been 90% self-promotion and 10% substance. But this lobby seems different. For rather than championing a popular movement or cause, it is formed around a major challenge and frustration – the uneasy marriage between religion and state in Israel.

And so there is reason to hope that finally, after many long years of ineffective commissions, studies and governmental decisions about our Jewish non-Jews, something may finally begin to move.

And this is not the only challenge to be tackled by this lobby, to be sure. The Gavison- Medan Covenant is a practical prescription for action which has been ignored for 10 years.

Here is a real, solid basis for effective Knesset leadership in the near future.

Particularly encouraging is the fact that the two MKs leading this effort made sure to obtain the fiscal and human resources for basic and thorough research before launching the enterprise. This rarely happens even after a lobby is formed, let alone before.

The effort also reflects careful thought, for traditionally the arena of controversy has been labeled “religion and state.”

This lobby calls itself “nation, religion and state,” reflecting the sense that these issues affect the entire nation of Jews – not just the Jews of Israel who have the power to decide them. This new perspective was broadly heralded at the Monday session.

From prior studies of our moribund conversion infrastructure, we know that resources have been badly misdirected, inefficiently deployed and even illegally obtained. But the core problem lies with the establishment rabbinical authorities, who are antagonistic and user-hostile. Halachic criteria for conversion are being applied rigidly and mechanically without any creative effort to help increase rather than impede integration. The inherent flexibility of our Halacha, which has served our people so well in the past, is being ignored in favor of obstructive ministration. This is where the big change must come. This is where the “big bang” must happen.

Knesset lobbies are confined to a semi-official existence.

Funding and staffing must be organized by the MKs themselves.

The lobby has only limited use of Knesset facilities and must be sure to advise all government officials invited to participate that it is not an official organ of the Knesset.

This creates difficulties, to be sure. But it also means that when a group of MKs are motivated to attack serious national problems without the applause and acclimation attendant to more populist banners, something real may be about to happen.

For the many opponents with special interests who oppose any given solution cannot easily block its activities.

This lobby is led by two public figures who have proven through past accomplishments that they understand the urgency of the problems and know how to achieve results.

We live in historic times. We have reestablished Jewish sovereignty on our homeland, triggering a massive ingathering of exiles. Not since the destruction of the first Temple have we enjoyed such a high percentage of Jews living here. We must not drop the ball and fail these olim who are here through our urging and efforts. If we fail them, we fail ourselves and we damage the whole nation irrevocably.

This lobby must zero in on the main problems, marshall the dedication and fervor of the many volunteers who will join its cause, and act decisively.

There is not much time before it is too late, but we can still save the day. And we must.

The author, an attorney in Israel and the US, is the founding president of the Institute for Zionist Strategies. The IZS project “Golden Path” was formed to examine questions relating to nation, state and religion, and has pledged to help the new lobby with research and related services

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