“I came out of Auschwitz, a place where they decided ‘who is a Jew.’ I didn''t think I was going to live to see the day when it was decided in Israel.”
In a gesture to Israeli Orthodoxy David Ben-Gurion invited the two Orthodox parties, Agudat Israel and Mizrachi (later National Religious Party, or NRP), to participate in the First Knesset (1950). To convince them to join he agreed to retain the Ottoman tradition of a Chief Rabbinate with authority over areas of “personal status.” This gesture marked the beginning of the contest between secular Israelis and Orthodoxy over the definition and character of the state.
In 1970 Golda Meir, “refused to yield to the Orthodox demands because she felt that the Orthodox monopoly over religion should not be extended to cover the diaspora and that while the Knesset could legislate for Israel, it was not entitled to pass legislation that would determine the kind of conversion that would be carried out in the diaspora.” In 1974 Prime Minister Rabin similarly rejected the demands.
But in Menachem Begin, Orthodoxy found a more sympathetic politician. And in 1977 Likud unseated the left-leaning Alignment to form Israel’s 9th Knesset.
“It was public knowledge that Begin had promised the Orthodox leadership in Israel that, if elected, he would endeavor to change the Law of Return to insert the controversial phrase, ‘conversion in accordance with Halakha’ in the definition of Jewish identity.” That year a delegation from the United States tried to convince the new prime minister to change his mind. He sympathized but reminded them that, “[i]n order to be elected Prime Minister and to form a coalition government, I had to take the political realities of our country into consideration.” Political pragmatism trumped Jewish unity. And from that date “Who is a Jew” entered Israel’s political mainstream.
The issue has also insinuated itself into the Israel-Diaspora dialogue. “At present, the definition [of Who is a Jew] is based on Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws [actually the German Enabling Act of 1933 defined as “Jew” a person with a single Jewish grandparent]: the right of Return is granted to any individual with one Jewish grandparent, or who is married to someone with one Jewish grandparent [the 1970 Amendment]. As a result, thousands of people with no meaningful connection to the Jewish people theoretically have the right to immigrate.”
What is surprising about this description of Jewish identity is that it appears on the website of Jewish Virtual Library, A division of The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. After years of controversy regarding Jewish identity in Israel, this mainstream Jewish-Israel website unblinkingly accepts that the original intent of the Law of Return is no longer operative for the state of the Jews.
But the Law of Return and Israel’s response to Hitler, the 1970 “Grandchild” amendment, are the heart of what defines Israel as Zionist. The Law represents Israel’s commitments, the breadth of its obligation as refuge to our Diaspora.
And this is the crux of the issue: Israel is six-plus decades into statehood; the Jewish nation nearly seven decades from the ovens of Auschwitz. From the perspective of a human life-span such an apparently long period absent mortal threat encourages trust that the threat, the “final solution” to the Jewish Problem, was an anomaly, a unique event in Jewish history. And if we accept that then need for refuge, for Zionism, is also passed.
So why should Israel cling to an anachronistic and limiting Law of Return, voluntarily restrict its sovereignty regarding identity and immigration merely to pander to the sensitivities of a Diaspora many inside and out the state of the Jews perceive to be in free-fall between assimilation and intermarriage?
And indeed my immediate surroundings in America are tranquil. My neighbors are friendly, as are my work associates. Life is, well, normal. Where the threat? But how trustworthy is personal experience in gauging risk? Germany in the years before Hitler may well have appeared equally risk-free to the Jews. After all, were they also not well represented in culture, the professions and the government? Germany had a Jewish foreign minister; a Jew had drafted the Weimar constitution.
According to a 2010 report by the Jewish Agency, “Anti-Semitic incidents in western Europe peaked to a level not seen since the close of World War II.” And Abe Foxman, on releasing the 2009 ADL survey of antisemitism in the US which showed antisemitism steady for the past several years [this was before Israel’s Gaza War and the Mavi Marmara backlash] said, “It is a sobering reality that as Jews have become more accepted in society, there remains a consistent hatred of Jews among too many.”
So antisemitism, far from disappearing, or even diminishing continues along its familiar cyclical course responding not to Jewish assimilation and good citizenship, but instead to the degree of social discomfort of the host country.
As regards Israel, for antisemites who find overt antisemitism “impolite,” such as British and American professors and students, anti-Zionism serves nicely. Thousands may be slaughtered in Syria, but by some “mystery” of western sensibilities the state of the Jews remains the favored target for abuse by our genteel humanists.
Does the Diaspora still need Zionism, a refuge? If we choose to believe many of our historians who assure that the Holocaust was a “unique” historical event; or our theologians and artists who view the Holocaust as a “mystery” beyond understanding, then reassured by our experts we can relax; surely the West’s centuries long Jewish Problem is a thing of the past, with no place in modern, rational society; its failed “final solution” no longer a threat.
And if Israel is just going through another of those periods of global friendlessness surely that will pass once the Iranian situation, the Arab Spring and the Palestinian situation return to calm. So a secure and inward looking Israel can continue along its proscribed path to the halachic legal system for the state advocated recently by its justice minister, free of concern that such a particularistic legal system represents an explicit divorce from the Diaspora.
But if, just for a moment consider the possibility, the survival of Western antisemitism did not go out of style with the Holocaust, but is a permanent feature of Jewish existence; if anti-Zionism is just warmed over antisemitism for the polite; if History in fact is the inspiration for Holocaust, and 20th century technology made possible an expeditious means to carry it through, then the mid-20th century Holocaust likely does not represent the West’s final Final Solution. And Israel will one day in a future not of its own determining again be needed as that Zionist homeland and refuge created by earlier generations of Diaspora Jews.
And the survival of the Law of Return and its 1970 “Grandchild Clause,” had better be there to serve its intended purpose.
Several recent articles relating to Jewish survivability in the Diaspora include:
1. Does papal ''exoneration'' mean no more Holocausts?
2. Conversion, Kulturkampf and the future of Israel
3. The Jewish Problem, and the Diaspora
4. Holocaust history, Holocaust denial
5. Is Israel still Zionist?
6. No ''Jacobo'', Jews are not safe in the Diaspora