“Who is a Jew” and the limits of a Zionist Israel

“[A]n effort to conform Who is a Jew to a strictly halachic interpretation is,
by definition, anti-Zionist.”
Introduction: I hesitated to write this last minute insertion into my blogstream since the issue raised will be covered more extensively in the “final chapter” asking whether Israel will be in a position to serve its Zionist-designated purpose in the future: refuge for the Diaspora? But the issue rose once again at the close of my last submission, and with elections apparently looming, "Who is a Jew?" may be expected to resurface as an issue of coalition formation.
A stamp in a passport issuing holder Israeli citizenship based on Law of Return, (Wikipedia)
The struggle over the Jewish identity for Israel is older even than the declaration of statehood in 1948. As the UN vote on partition neared David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, felt it important to demonstrate unity within the Yishuv, Palestine’s Jewish community. He decided to offer incentives to the reluctant orthodox community to join the First Knesset. This set a precedent for future coalition formation that continues to the present. “Ben-Gurion gave power over divorce and marriage to the chief rabbinate and exempted any full-time yeshiva students from military service. It was no coincidence that his first coalition government included the Religious Front, made up of a group of religious parties that included the non-Zionist Agudat Israel.”
During the first three decades of the state the Left held monopoly over Israeli politics which limited the leverage orthodox parties could wield in promoting their vision for a state conforming to halachic law. It was only with victory of the Right under Begin on 20 June, 1977 that orthodoxy assumed a pivotal role between rival secular parties vying for their support to form a governing coalition.
Who is a Jew and Civil Society: Two examples of the degree to which orthodoxy is now flexing its coveted muscle to define the identity and daily life of Israel are in the Knesset and through the Rabbinate. the legislative effort to provide Israeli civil law with a halachic identity and, secondarily, the monopoly of the Conversion Authority to determine who is a Jew through its monopoly over the conversion process.
The current crisis began in a disputed divorce case last year in the port city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. A local rabbinical court ruled that the petitioning couple’s marriage had been religiously invalid from the outset because the woman’s conversion to Judaism 14 years earlier was inauthentic. The rabbi claimed she failed to observe Orthodox ritual law once she was declared Jewish, and that she had never intended to observe it.
“The decision effectively turned the woman’s four children, all born after her conversion and raised as Jews, into non-Jews because their mother is not Jewish.
“The case was heard on appeal by a three-judge panel of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which voted last week to uphold the Ashdod rabbi’s decision… Haredi leaders do not concede any religious significance in the establishment of Israel, and therefore they oppose the idea of easing any religious rules in order to strengthen the state [Rabbi Druckman is a highly regarded religious Zionist].”
The “three judge panel” used the case to retroactively challenge all conversions conducted under Rabbi Haim Druckman, a highly regarded rabbinic authority and religious-Zionist head of Israel’s Conversion authority:
“More than 40,000 Israelis who were converted to Judaism in the past decade by the state’s official conversion courts [found] their conversions annulled — rendering them non-Jewish in the eyes of the law…”
Then Kadima prime minister, Ehud Olmert requested Rabbi Druckman serve another term when the 70+ year old head of the conversion authority sought to step down. He remained at Olmert’s request. In May, 2008, caving to pressure from the haredim Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert unceremoniously dismissed Rabbi Druckman from office.
JERUSALEM — A growing crisis between American Jews and the Israeli government over a proposed law on religious conversion was averted — or at least delayed — this week, with both sides agreeing to a six-month period of negotiation. But the depth of American anger and the byzantine complexity of Israeli politics suggest that a solution is a long way off.
And while the 2010 effort (introduced by the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party) was “shelved,” it is really on hold until the issue retires from public and a “compromise” can be hammered out.
Who is a Jew and its “secular” promoters: Sixty years ago the Knesset restated Israel’s Zionist mission as refuge to the Diaspora by including the Law of Return as one of the first of the Basic Laws (Israel still does not have a constitution basically due to the controversy over the question, Who is a Jew; the Basic Laws represent a constitution substitute). In 1970, responding to an aggressive orthodox effort to legislate Who is a Jew the government amended the Law of Return to specifically include the “grandparent provision.” For purposes of sanctuary anyone defined “Jew” under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws would be provided sanctuary as a “Jew.”  Germany legislated a “Jew” by blood, and included anybody who had a single Jewish grandparent, regardless of religious affiliation, or not.
Over the years, and of interest to this blogstream, many Israelis at all levels of society have “matured” beyond Zionism. That the secular party, Yisrael Beiteinu could introduce Who is a Jew legislation, supported by the orthodox parties, for narrow political-social interests is one example. There are numerous other such, but space limits me.
In 2008 the “conversion fiasco” and its embarrassing end with Israel’s prime minister caving to anti-Zionists and firing Rabbi Druckman. One year earlier MK Menachem Ben-Sasson, chairman of the Knesset Constitution and Law Committee announced that he would attempt to present Israel a constitution in time for her 60th Independence Day celebration. Included would be a Who is a Jew “compromise” Law of Return, in which the 1970 Grandparent Amendment would be removed!
Also in 2007 Hebrew University professor Ruth Gavison, described as a“ perpetual Supreme Court candidate” maintains, “The desire to complete the ingathering of the exiles is counterpoised with the state''s interest in maintaining the wellbeing of all its citizens. A responsible country (that is a post-Zionist country with no obligations beyond its borders) should not volunteer to absorb groups of people with little chances of being absorbed and who are likely to live on the fringes of society in anger and frustration.” In plain English, the “perpetual Supreme Court candidate” would abolish both the Grandparent Clause, and the Law of Return of which it is an amendment!
A Zionist definition of Who is a Jew is embodied in Israel’s Basic Laws: anyone facing persecution as a “Jew” will be provided sanctuary in the state of the Jews. By any standard of imagination, even were the haredim “religious Zionists,” an effort to conform Who is a Jew to a strictly halachic interpretation is, by definition, anti-Zionist.
Previous articles of interest:

4. Conversion, Kulturkampf and the future of Israel