Is Israel still Zionist?

In response to my earlier blog, No ''Jacobo'', Jews are not safe in the Diaspora, Cor raised an important question, one that anticipates an issue I have long intended to address in more comprehensive form, a definition of Zionism. But for the present I will limit myself to discussing one aspect of the problem, haredi influence on the emerging character of the State of Israel.

A little background: Zionism was the response of younger and mostly secular Jews in the late nineteenth century to the reality that our “emancipation” from fifteen hundred years of serfdom not only did not eliminate religious persecution, but created an even more dangerous discrimination based on “scientific” criteria. From race to virus, it turned out, was a short distance for the imagination, a deadly step for the Jews.


The catchword here is “mostly secular,” because even during the Holocaust, and in the few years between Shoah and statehood, Orthodox Jewry, for the most part, not only opposed, but solicited political leaders in the US and overseas not to allow the birth of Israel. Among the rare orthodox exceptions was Rabbi Kook who viewed Zionism as a bridge between secular and orthodox Jewry.


David Ben-Gurion was far more than Israel’s first prime minister. He helped define the early character of the State of Israel. One of his contributions was to enshrine in the Basic Laws, Israel’s constitution, Israel’s Zionist mission. The Law of Return assures refuge to any Jew in need. And in direct response to Germany’s Nuremberg Laws which, for purposes first of discrimination, later for murder, defined a Jew as any one with a single Jewish grandparent, a Grandparent Clause was amended to the Law of Return defining as "Jew," under Israeli law and for purposes of aliya, anyone with a single Jewish grandparent.


Ben-Gurion, a secularist, also recognized the need for Israel to have a Jewish heart and character. To establish this he invited the pro-Zionist orthodox political party, the National Religious Party, to join the government. In later years the tradition of orthodox participation in the government would become institutionalized. But in place of the pro-Zionist NRP, which disintegrated in the 1980''s, enter the anti-Zionist haredi parties.


Assured a place in government, the Haredi parties became a swing bloc in Israeli coalition building. Their influence, particularly over social issues, far exceeds their numbers in Israeli society. As did the orthodox prior to statehood, the haredim oppose a secular and democratic state of the Jews. Although Israel, as the Diaspora, is overwhelmingly non-orthodox, the haredi parties control conversion, the gateway to Jewish identity, and marriage and divorce. In effect, although not yet successful in passing Who is a Jew in the Knesset, which would establish Halacha as the legal basis for life in Israel for all its Jewish residents, conversion and Halacha are still the portal to legitimacy for Jews living in Israel.


The implications of this for residents of the Diaspora are obvious. Whenever Shas or Torah introduces Who is a Jew in the Knesset a howl of Diaspora despair is reported in the Israeli media. The current challenge by the haredim via the Chief Rabbinate for control over the IDF conversion process, previously stamped “kosher” by earlier Chief Rabbinates, confirms doubt in the minds of all non-orthodox Jews, in Israel and the Diaspora. Where Rabbi Kook sought to build a bridge to the secular, the haredim seem determined to slam shut the door to inclusion in Israel, even Judaism, to all but their own. 


Under the slow but insidious growth of haredi influence in government Israel has drifted, almost unawares, away from its purpose for existing, Zionism. In advance of Israel’s 60th  Independence Day celebrations the Knesset Constitution and Law committee attempted to push through a “present” for the state, a constitution. And one of the reforms included in the Independence Day gift to the state was a significantly weakened, if not eliminated, Law of Return. 

Two more examples (I could provide many others) of this gradual, almost invisible drift away from Zionism, even among secular Israelis: “One of Israel’s best-known legal scholars, Prof. Ruth Gavison, is urging a rethink of the provisions of the Law of Return that could lead to eliminating automatic citizenship for new olim.” Gavison suggests that Jewish olim be afforded no preference over non-Jewish immigrants. Very democratic, very assimilationist, very western; but whatever happened to Israel as Zionist refuge, its debt and obligation to the Diaspora, its reason for even existing? And only weeks ago another famous professor at Hebrew University, Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, offered that, between the Jordan River and the sea, “Palestinians, foreign workers, migrants, non-halachically Jewish olim outnumber [my italics] Jews…” "Non-halachically Jewish olim" are counted as non-Jews?

Israel must choose between being the state of the Jews, all Jews, or the Jewish state that defines Jews only according to “Halacha.” Left to its present trajectory Israel will continue the drift away from Zionism, first towards a western style wanabe nation-state ala Gavison; continuing the drift into an Eastern European shtetl and, since a shtetl could not survive independently (who would provide taxes, who defend the state?), Israel would finally fulfill the Palestinian dream of a minority Jewish population within an independent State of Palestine.


Israel needs our Diaspora and all evidence demonstrates that the Diaspora continues, and will always, need an ultimate destination, a Zionist refuge. Our collective fate lies in the hands of the government.