Israel, Zionism and the Diaspora: “Who is a Jew” and the coming divide

In Israel Halakha is the exclusive province of the Orthodox and they will not recognize our [Conservative] procedures even though they are identical with their own.”
Introduction: “Who is a Jew” for Israel may be just one more step from secular towards religion as civil law. Whether or not this is desired, or even in the interest of Israel’s increasingly less “silent majority,” from the standpoint of Israel-Diaspora relations it represents nothing less than a parting of the ways. To replace secular with halachic law does not mean only Shabbat closings and kashrut for Israelis; it impacts also the Law of Return and who qualifies/who not “as a Jew.” As do the Nuremberg Laws, it establishes levels of Jewish identity. Nor is the heart of those German laws, “mischlinge (half-breed),” misapplied to “Who is a Jew.” The only real difference is that where Germany used the term to expand membership, “Who is a Jew” limits membership.
1935 chart used to explain Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. The chart defines “mischlinge” by degree of “Jewish blood” (Wikipedia)
“Who is a Jew” puts Zionism, homeland for the Jewish people, on its head: only “halachic” Jews need apply.
What is Halacha? But wait, what precisely is this “Halacha” that would remove Judaism’s non-Orthodox majority from the exclusive club? Is there even a single, universally accepted “Halacha” to serve as measure for this coveted identity?
Halacha literally translates as, “the path.” It comprises the 613 mitzvot (commandments) which guided Jewish social and religious life for centuries before our “emancipation,” and continues to do so for many Jews today. The problem of “Halacha-as-universal” is in recognizing that its interpretation is necessarily different for Jews living in pre-electricity and socially insulated communities, such as the shtetls of the past, than in more modern societies. Its interpretation also takes into consideration that Jews living in Istanbul and Amsterdam and New York, due to their socio-cultural environment, would understand “Halacha” differently to some degree one community from the other. The real importance of Halacha to Jewish survival has traditionally been its flexibility, that it is adaptable according to specific time and location.
Whether or not it is permissible to ride an elevator on Shabbat is not decided by that person but by trusted authorities familiar with “elevators” and electricity, etc. This was a real issue raised in Israel several years ago. And disagreements between Orthodox communities themselves regarding Halacha can also feed passions and turn violent, as in the controversy surrounding young Orthodox girls attending a school.
Which brings us back to the question of “Halacha” as determinant of Jewish identity: It should be obvious that since Halacha is first of all interpreted, an action that already introduces human understanding and error; that it limits interpretation to issues unique to “time and place,” it is impossible for there to be a single and authoritative “Halacha.”
Put another way, a rigid Halacha backed by Israeli government authority would, in the end, destroy the identity between Diaspora and the state, and possibly prove fatal to the survival of Judaism itself.
The harassment of a schoolgirl by Beit Shemesh''s ultra-Orthodox community has ignited mainstream Israelis'' simmering frustrations with the religious community''s growing influence” (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Haredim and Israeli politics: The struggle by Orthodoxy over Jewish identity within Israel dates back to 1947 and ben-Gurion’s effort to create the appearance of a unified Yishuv in the months leading up to the United Nations partition vote. The two Orthodox parties at that time conditioned their participation in the First Knesset on control over such civil matters as marriage and divorce, and that the new state recognizes the Ottoman institution of Chief Rabbi. This established the future pattern by which the religious parties, typically serving as “swing vote” in elections between the major secular parties, are provided ministries that allow them to determine such benefits as welfare for their voluntary non-employed constituents, and exemption from military service, etc. But in the end Orthodoxy’s real goal has always been control over “Who is a Jew,” their communal guarantee of Jewish identity for Israel.
Secular political parties and the Orthodox: Reasonsfor the decline of the political left and rise of the right in Israel are complex and beyond the scope of this discussion. Certainly demographics, and particularly the massive “ingathering” of Russian Jewry have been an important factor. Another, already alluded to, is the system of government by coalition which rarely if ever results in a single party emerging with a majority. Enter the Orthodox parties as “swing vote.” And since the right has been much more obliging than the left in satisfying their demands, as things stand today the political right can virtually depend on Orthodox parties for support (this may be changing with Kadima recently joining Likud and Beiteinu in the coalition providing a “secular” majority not dependent on the Orthodox). Although Likud for the first time defeated the “left” Alignment in the 1977 elections, a good illustration of Orthodoxy as king-maker was the 1988 election. Producing no clear-cut winner between the right and the left:
“Leaders of Israel''s right-wing Likud bloc began coalition talks Wednesday with four ultra-Orthodox religious parties that will decide who will govern the nation after inconclusive national elections.
“The prospect of an alliance between Likud… and the religious parties, who demand strict rules for observing the Sabbath and changes in policy that extends citizenship to all Jews [the Law of Return], could lead to dramatic changes in Israel…”
One result of the 1988 election was that members of the Haredi ultraorthodox parties were now sitting as ministers in the government. The boundaries between religion and government were blurring. How far this “blurring” would progress is best illustrated by a 2009 speech Israel’s Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman delivered to a legal conference:
“We will bestow upon the citizens of Israel,” Neeman proclaimed. “the laws of the Torah and we will turn Halacha into the binding law of the nation… Soon, in the near future, amen.”

The long-anticipated kulturkampf apparently avoided the street and took place in the “smoke-filled rooms” of the Knesset, hidden from public view.   


Recent writings in this Series:


1. Jewish Problem, Israel Question: How Zionist Israel?

2. Antisemitism in America: How antisemitic are Americans?

3. Antisemitism in American politics, part 3: the Pollard Show Trial 

4. Antisemitism in American politics, part 2: the Rosenberg Show Trial