We are our own worst enemy

Devoid of our national soul, our future is not sustainable.

July 9, 2015 20:43
Hapoel Jerusalem’s Bar Timor and Eilat’s Afik Nissim

THE JERUSALEM conversion office of the Chief Rabbinate – once the majority of Israeli citizens no longer connect to the Jewish nature of Israel, we will be left with a soulless country that is constantly fighting for its very existence.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Tears rolled down their cheeks.

I had just finished speaking at a secular high school in Modi’in, where I explained the details of conversion reform we were working on during the 19th Knesset. Two girls approached me afterward. “Thank you,” they said through misty eyes. “We desperately want to be officially Jewish, and be able to live our lives without this cloud of being non-Jewish hanging over us wherever we go. You give us hope.”

That hope has now been squashed by their government. Not just for those two high-school seniors, but for tens of thousands more who eagerly want to be Jewish, and who, if given the opportunity in an embracing and loving manner, would jump at the opportunity to go through the conversion process.

This was the impetus behind the conversion reform which passed in the last government: reach out to the people, bring the courts to the people, and allow the rabbis to be accessible to the people by establishing 30 conversion courts throughout the country, with more than 100 rabbis seeking to reach out, embrace, teach and assist the converts.

Take Ilya Dichno, a child of Russian immigrants. He was part of the Givati Brigade commando unit that was ambushed on the last day of Operation Protective Edge in the southern Gaza Strip last summer.

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 The ambush killed the unit’s commander, Maj. Benaya Sarel, team commander Lt. Hadar Golden, and St.-Sgt. Liel Gidoni. Dichno has since begun the army conversion program, and so deep was the love and connection between Jewish commander and non-Jewish commando that Dichno chose Benaya as his second Jewish name.

Our conversion reform would have meant that we would be actively engaging tens of thousands of Ilyas, young men and women who are committed Israelis, who see themselves as an integral part of the future of the Jewish state.

But alas – the cabinet decision last Sunday to nullify that conversion process now means we are back to only four conversion courts, and 33 rabbis who are legally permitted to perform conversions throughout the State of Israel. This was not just another government decision.

With the cabinet’s second announcement placing rabbinic judges under the jurisdiction of the Religious Services Ministry, and the new religious services minister’s decision to drop policies demanding accountability from state-hired rabbis, we are going backward to religious services being a “service” for the rabbis and their cohorts to whom they give jobs. Unfortunately, it is no longer about serving the people.

Now tears roll down the cheeks of those girls and of many Ilyas throughout the country, but they are not tears of hope. Rather they are tears of sadness as they have been shut out. The door has been closed to them. They won’t become Jewish. And how ironic – they are good enough to serve in the IDF, perhaps even losing their lives defending us, God forbid, but we won’t reach out to help them become Jewish. They are good enough to attend our universities and earn a livelihood, contribute to our country’s tax revenue, but we hold them at arm’s distance when it comes to life-cycle events such as marriage and burial. Shame on us.

I often think that if my great-grandfather had not immigrated to the United States from Russia in the late 19th century, I would be one of them. Those girls would be my daughters. Ilya would be my son. They are from us – our brothers and sisters who were forcibly divorced from our people during the 70-year reign of the Soviet Union, who assimilated through no fault of their own.

Aside from their unethical attitude, the ultra-Orthodox political leaders are making a tragic blunder that will lead to an erosion of Jewish Israel and that could absolutely destroy us as a country. Jewish Israelis are going to meet these non-Jewish Israelis. They will fall in love.

And, in seeking to live happy lives, they will find a way to marry. Make no mistake: These young couples will figure out how to circumvent the obstacles which the ultra-Orthodox political establishment will place in their way, and they will establish families. And this scenario – mass intermarriage played out among hundreds of thousands of citizens in our small country of just 8 million people – will lead to tribalism and polarization that will threaten the very identity of our Jewish state.

The issue at hand goes even deeper than the tangible dangers of the government’s decision regarding conversion. There comes a time when every country must confront its identity.

In May 1948, David Ben-Gurion courageously stood up and declared a Jewish state. But since that moment, we’ve never taken the time to have the conversation: What does a “Jewish state” mean? As a result, the more extreme and stringent elements have taken the reins and defined it for us. In so doing, they not only have pushed away hundreds of thousands who should be converting to Judaism, they have distanced millions in the secular population who want no part of the Judaism which the ultra-Orthodox political leadership is offering them.

Once the majority of Israeli citizens no longer connect to the Jewish nature of Israel, we will be left with a soulless country that is constantly fighting for its very existence.

Devoid of our national soul, our future is not sustainable. And we will lose.

The moment Israel surrenders its Jewishness to the control of extremists who have no interest in the broader nation, we are setting ourselves on a path toward destroying ourselves from within.

Iran? Hamas? ISIS? The Palestinian conflict? The greatest threat to Israel’s existence may be ourselves.

The writer served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.

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