Conversion, Kulturkampf and the future of Israel

The conversion bill now working its way through the Knesset once again brings to the surface Israel’s sometimes hidden Kulturkampf. Pitting secular against haredi, haredi against haredi, the implications of this struggle for the future of Israel are enormous.
Orthodox parties have participated in and contributed to governing coalitions since 1949 and the First Knesset. But at that time orthodoxy generally agreed with Rav Kook that Zionism and a state of the Jews provided a bridge between the orthodox and the secular, promotes Jewish identity and peoplehood. Those early religious parties combined orthodoxy and Zionism, promoted state-building under a religious Zionist umbrella. HaPoel HaMizrachi and Poale Agudat Yisrael exemplified the Zionist ideal of reclaiming the land through their pioneering kibbutz movements.
In recent decades religious Zionism has been overtaken and replaced by an aggressive form of Haredism, intolerant and dismissive towards a secular lifestyle, dismissive of Zionism and a state of the Jews. Manipulative of democratic process, Lithuanian haredim would impose their own narrow understanding of Halacha as law governing daily life in Israel.
The cast of characters among the haredim in today’s conversion controversy exemplify the problem. The once-tolerant Sephardic Shas Party, inspired by and being pushed from the right, have become a straw dog for the anti-Zionist Lithuanian Haredim. While Shas has not fully abandoned Zionism, as evidenced by Rabbi Yosef’s recent ruling regarding military conversions, the Lithuanians condemned his decision as a “desecration.”
But the Conversion Bill is only one example of the problem, as is the periodic appearance of “Who is a Jew” in the Knesset. At least these are subject to debate in governmental bodies. Not so the Lithuanian challenge to state legitimacy that took place two years ago.
In November, 2008, the “Supreme Rabbinical Court” headed by a Rabbi Avraham Sherman retroactively annulled ten years of conversions approved by the Chief Rabbinate and the State of Israel. Sherman regarded the conversions supervised by the religious Zionist head of the state’s Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, as “too lenient.” By fiat Sherman not only disregarded the law of the state, but questioned the identities of 40,000 people legally converted and accepted as Jews by the nation and the state. “In criticizing [Rabbi Druckman’s] conversion procedures, Sherman also attacked some basic beliefs of religious Zionism, which regards strengthening the Jewish state as a religious value [my italics].” Apparently bowing to “coalition concerns” the prime minister, who had only recently implored the reluctant Rabbi Druckman to continue for another term, sided with haredi extremism and unceremoniously fired his pro-Zionist appointee.
The power of Haredi politics derives from its pivotal position in coalition creation. Israel’s secular parties find it less politically costly to pander to religious extremism than to compromise and accommodate one another. This was most recently played out when Netanyahu chose what he refers to as his “natural” haredi partners over the possibility of an all-secular government including Kadima. Whatever the political tensions involved in an all-secular coalition, I suggest that the costs in Israeli identity, its loss of Zionist credibility and trust, is far more costly to the state and the nation. Coalition politics turns Jewish identity and the Diaspora into a commodity of trade, a political football.
Perhaps a lesson in Zionism and Israel’s reason for existing is in line.
Israel’s Zionist commitment was established as one of its first Basic Laws. Article One of the 1950 Law of Return adopted by the First Knesset states, “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh;” and in 1952 the Knesset, in direct response to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws defining Jews as outside the protection of the state, specifically extends the right of refuge to the, “grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.” This is the very heart of Zionist Israel, the very issue challenged by “Who is a Jew” and today’s conversion controversy.
And it is precisely over these issues that Israel is surrendering its Zionism, is failing its obligations to the Diaspora.
But perhaps Israel’s politicians, like so many of our people in the post-Shoah Diaspora, prefer to believe that the Holocaust was a singular event not likely to repeat, that Israel as refuge is no longer needed?
Barely six decades since the nearly successful “final solution” to the West’s Jewish Problem, antisemitism has re-emerged at a level leading the European Jewish Congress (EJC) to warn members of their communities to hide identifying symbols of Judaism while on the street. Nor is the danger in Europe alone: the deadly assault on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; the recent New York Post report discribing a significant rise of antisemitic incidents for 2010 in the state with America’s largest Jewish population; and the recent assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by an assailant identified with antisemitic groups: all point to the fact that the Diaspora continues an environment of discrimination and potential danger.
In a word, the threat to Jewish survival in the wake of the Shoah is far more serious today than could have been imagined by our 19th century visionaries who conceived of Zionism. And the need for Israel to serve as refuge of last resort is not diminished.
Playing politics with Jewish identity, creating a hierarchy, a tier of privilege within Judaism by legally defining less halachically stringent streams of Jews as second class only serves to alienate the Diaspora, to quicken the pace of assimilation among those already adrift. “Who is a Jew” represents Israel to the Diaspora as hostile and discouraging, just the opposite of the welcoming refuge that is needed, that Israel exists to provide.
Israel is at the crossroads. By continuing its present course of accommodation with religious extremism, by its politicians allowing state and social functions to increasingly fall under haredi control, the state of the Jews is abandoning Zionism, abandoning the Diaspora. While Israel has not yet crossed that bridge, time and distance are short.
Other of my writings on this and related topics may be accessed at my other blog sites, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival and Antisemitism in Art