Israel beyond Zionism?

“Legitimizing Haredi control over conversion is a stalking horse for that other Haredi ambition, passage of Who is a Jew. With passage of Who is a Jew, discrimination against the non-orthodox, which includes the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry, becomes law of the land.”

Herzl would have to be ambivalent about the state of the Jews one hundred years after his death. He correctly assumed that having our own state would return us to “normalcy” as nation and as individuals. We farm the land and successfully defend the land we farm. We have our own government which, with an array of parties and ideologies for the voter to choose from, is surely the most democratic in the world. We are a world leader in the fields of medical and hi-tech innovation; have for decades pioneered such now trendy “green” industries as solar and wind power, offshoot industries such as electric powered transportation. In agriculture Israel first developed sprinklers, then drip and deep root watering for arid land farming, developed domestic plants adapted to arid climates. And for decades Israel has freely shared her expertise and innovations with the hungry of third world countries.
But “normal” also means that the state of the Jews has, under constant threat and open warfare, living with the obligation and burden of military service and taxation led to Israelis gradually seeing themselves as citizens of Israel rather than the avant garde of the Jewish People in our collective Zionist enterprise. And we of the Diaspora, ourselves aware of the threats and pressures facing Israel and Israelis over the decades, have respected the boundary between state and Diaspora, have hesitated to express ourselves in most internal affairs of Israel, even those that impacted the Diaspora.
The result has been an ever-widening gulf between Diaspora Jewry and the state of the Jews, with the partnership of the Zionist Project receding as a result.
What is the Zionist Project, how does it even apply to 21st century Jewry? Zionism was born of the mid-to-late 19th century realization that our emancipation from serfdom and religious persecution did not mean we would be accepted into the newly secular states emerging in the west. Long before Herzl’s nationalist awakening during the anti-Dreyfusard riots in Paris, in his book Auto-Emancipation Leon Pinsker had decades earlier concluded that Jewish security would always be subject to the mood of the majority among whom we reside, that Jewish survival could only be assured in a Jewish homeland capable of its own defense.
But not even Pinsker and Herzl could have even imagined the degree of threat we faced mere decades in their future. Without the Holocaust, the west’s first attempt at a final solution to the Jewish Problem, Israel would likely have remained nothing but a dream among our fringe, a millennial and continuing yearning, “next year in Jerusalem!”
Israeli and Diaspora Jewry consider the creation of the State of Israel the culmination of Zionism. It is not. This was clearly understood and put into law by the first Knesset. With the ovens just cooling at Auschwitz, among the first of the Basic Laws was the definition and commitment of Israel as the instrument of Zionism. The opening line of the 1950 Law of Return states that, “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh.” Israel’s Zionist mission, its reason for being, is to provide every Jew in need a home of choice, a refuge in time of need. The Law specifically excludes limitations such as, “only Jews “halachically pure” need apply, even were Halacha as rigid as some among the Haredi would like us to believe it is. The full intent of the Law cannot be made more clear than its Grandchild Clause, a provision extending refuge to anyone who falls under Germany’s 1932 Nuremburg Laws. Those laws define as “Jew” and subject to murder anyone with a single Jewish grandparent.
Israel has avoided writing a formal constitution, likely because of the delicate balance between the contradictory demands of secularism and orthodoxy in the state of the Jews. Orthodoxy in Israel is estimated as less than 25% of the Jewish population, less than 10% in the United States. But the prominence of Haredi parties in the Knesset and coalition gives them a platform and impact far beyond their small numbers. The issue of Who is a Jew is raised periodically in the Knesset, and while it has so far failed to pass into law, to judge by recent efforts in more main-stream Knesset forums and public discourse, resistance to the issue, typically expressed in challenging the status of the Law of Return, is eroding.
For decades rivalry between right-wing and left-wing parties has required whichever party achieved the most votes in an election to turn to the Haredi parties to form a coalition government. This effectively meant that the secular parties were hostage to Haredi political and social demands. This leverage has given the Haredi community social and economic advantages well beyond those enjoyed by all other Israelis. Only in the demand to define as “Jew” for matters religious and civil, the Who is a Jew proposal, did Knesset and state appear to draw the line.
So it is surprising that the Knesset Constitution and Law committee under the secular chairmanship of Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem is promoting a change in the conversion process which would return control of the Conversion Courts to the Chief Rabbinate, effectively providing a Haredi a veto over Who is a Jew.
At the heart of Who is a Jew is the definition of Israel as secular and democratic, and committed to the Zionist Project, or sectarian, exclusionary and, at least as regards the non-orthodox Diaspora, anti-Zionist. Should the Rotem proposal regarding conversion pass the Knesset and become law Who is a Jew will also in time grow less controversial, find less resistance among secular policy-makers. Over time Israelis will adjust to their new change of status as they adjusted to the ban on public transportation on Shabbat. But where the Diaspora is unaffected by Shabbat public transportation in Israel, Who is a Jew has an immediate impact on our Jewish identity, on our status in Israel. So Diaspora Jewry are understandably troubled by this legislation. Should Rotem become law the reaction by US Jewry would almost certainly be immediate and harmful to Israel at a time when she is in dire need our support.
But of even greater importance for the long-term survival of the Jewish people is the impact of any such Haredi-inspired law calling into question the identity of Jews, of its impact on the bedrock of Israeli Zionist obligation, the Law of Return. Limit the Law and Israel will have abandoned its reason for being. Even were a back-door compromise on the Law written in, such as suspending Who is a Jew if and when the Diaspora faces another Holocaust, Jews living in the Diaspora would long-since have grown distant from Israel, will have become accustomed to view Israel as inhospitable and anti-Jewish. At that crucial moment, when hesitation would prove fatal, our Diaspora might well hesitate. And Israel would be responsible.
Israel is the creation of the Diaspora. Even before the Holocaust we anticipated the need for refuge. The state of the Jews is not the property of its current Jewish residents. In matters of defense and taxation and Shabbat transportation Israel is free to decide. In matters of Jewish identity, issues that intimately affect the Diaspora, she is not.
Of course Israel is a sovereign country and free to pass whatever laws she deems fit. And if Israel chooses to accommodate exclusionary forces within her Haredi community over the needs and concerns of our Diaspora she certainly has the power to do so. But doing so comes with baggage. Who is a Jew is anti-Zionist in form and intent. To adopt it, or steps towards it such as Rabbinate control over conversion and identity, is anti-Diaspora in form and intent.
Legitimizing Haredi control over conversion is a stalking horse for that other Haredi ambition, passage of Who is a Jew. With passage of Who is a Jew, discrimination against the non-orthodox, which includes the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry (Israelis are already, for the most part, reconciled to the intrusion), becomes law of the land.
Israel has embarked on a treacherous path the obvious outcome being an unbridgeable breach with the Diaspora. Having abandoned her Zionist mission she will then face a hostile world alone, without even the assurance of Diaspora support.