“This cabinet minister [Tourism Minister Levin: Jewry should have no role in internal Israeli affairs] has no understanding of historical Zionism. Zionism brought about a Jewish state for the larger Jewish people [and the] government represents more than just Israelis, especially in matters like this.”Introduction
In 1947 David Ben-Gurion sought to shore up support in the Yishuv in order to provide a unified front in advance of the United Nations partition vote. Whether or not the two more moderate Orthodox groups would have actively opposed the emergence of Israel minus messianic intervention, he apparently chose to take no chances. In exchange for their support he agreed that the Ottoman era institution, the Chief Rabbinate would be preserved following independence. He also invited Orthodox parties to participate in the First Knesset, to convene following statehood. Both acts have had a profound impact, both positive and negative, on the evolution of Israel ever since. Political Orthodoxy, whether “moderate” and “Zionist” or Haredi and anti-Zionist have both been dedicated to creating a legal system for Israel based on Halacha. As Orthodoxy increasingly became the “go-to” alternative to compromise between the dominant political parties, so also emerged their dominance of the secular character of the state. Increasingly over the decades, Israel has drifted from a liberal democratic model to one increasingly chauvinistic and intolerant the non-orthodox and the Diaspora, its Zionist identity growing weaker. This Introduction provides a framework for understanding this week’s government decision in favor of Haredi demands, and the government’s capitulation to regarding those demands.
The Kotel is the remaining retainer wall to the temple destroyed by Rome in 70 CE. As such it is a powerful symbol both religious and national. In late July, 2107 that symbol underscored the growing rift between Israeli politics dependent on Haredi support, and its relationship with the Diaspora. A headline appearing in JPost in which ultraorthodox politicians warn against Diaspora “meddling”: Haredi Leaders: Don’t sit in U.S. and interfere with religion in Israel. And when the prime minister sought to patch together a compromise the Rabbinate’s representatives in the Knesset, Shas and UTJ, bolted. The degree to which Israeli politics has grown dependent on the tiny and anti-Zionist Haredim appears as a plea for understanding? According to the prime minister, he was “presented with threats from Litzman, Gafni and Deri who came to him and said they would topple his coalition if he didn’t cancel the Kotel deal. Without them, he has no government.”In face of the crisis, several Israeli observers concluded that the reaction of American Jewish leaders to Israel walking back its commitment for egalitarian worship was excessive. As they see it, it is the Americans who created the issue. Caroline Glick as one example allows that while the government had reneged on its agreement with the Diaspora regarding the Wall, that in the end “it didn’t change the status quo. It just chose not to change it.” And, she concedes, while that might be wrong, “it doesn’t justify the vitriol being leveled at the government by American Jewish leaders threatening to rethink their support for Israel.” I agree that representatives of Diaspora Jewry consider the consequences of their words. But Caroline’s argument is wrong on two points: 1. Their reaction was not regarding the prior “status quo” but about the promise by the prime minister to change the status quo, and; 2. July 2017 was not the first protest against Israel Orthodoxy’s effort to delegitimize the status of Diaspora Jewry. Every effort to made by Orthodoxy to make Who is a Jew basis for civil law in Israel protest was made. And that effort has spanned decades.
Where I do agree with Caroline is that the issue of the Kotel is more smoke than substance compared to another decision of the prime minister. Legislation passed that day providing for expanded authority of the Rabbinate over conversion: “ a bill granting the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly on conversion.” Should this legislation achieve final approval the Chief Rabbinate would have total control over Jewish identity for Israel and Who is a Jew will have finally have been enacted. In 2009 then Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman promised his audience of orthodox legal scholars and the Chief Rabbis that, “We will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the laws of the Torah and we will turn Halacha into the binding law of the nation… Soon, in the near future, amen.” Not even Neeman could have believed such would be achieved just eight years later. And by a secular nationalist government kowtowing to minority religious parties threatening to bolt the coalition! Israeli Orthodoxy, from its acceptance into the First Knesset to present, whether sympathetic or antithetic to Zionism, has relentlessly sought to legislate Jewish identity for Israel. Who is a Jew, whenever raised for a vote in the Knesset, would spark immediate protest from American Jewish leaders. Should the move to provide the Rabbinate the authority it seeks over conversion the debate over Who is a Jew will have been decided; Israel’s appeal to the Diaspora will likely be irremediably injured.
And Zionism, homeland and refuge, will no longer describe the Jewish state. Israel stands at a crossroads regarding its Zionist trust. Will the state of the Jewish People renew its obligations to our Diaspora or, on the crucible of political expediency abandon Zionism and the Nation. It is ironic that David Ben Gurion, devout secularist “father of the country” failed to appreciate the danger to the new state by his compromises with Orthodoxy. But the dream of Zionism remains, its need far greater today in the wake of the Holocaust than when Pinsker and Herzl recognized the need as response to continuing antisemitism following emancipation. It comes down to Israeli politicians and their parties’ willingness to compromise ideological purity for the good of the state and the Nation who will need refuge. And that need is not if, but when; whether or not today’s Diaspora is willing, or even able to appreciate the threat. Religion does have a role in promoting Jewish identity. And the Zionist state was always intended for all Jews, even those opposed by religious belief to the existence of a state minus divine intervention. Tolerant and accepting even of such as the Neturei Karta who support Iran against the state of the Jews. Israel was intended and created as refuge to all Jews, regardless of affiliation or not. The Law of Return in response to the Holocaust explicitly extends refuge to non-Jews and their families threatened as “Jews” under the definition of the Nazi race laws. The Haredim, favored in Israel's political circles, are unashamedly anti-Zionist. For them, Israel-as-refuge for the Diaspora is both anathema and threat. The aim of Zionism was not realized by merely creating a state. Its intent was to ensure the survival of a people who typically fail to appreciate their own state of danger (Germany following Hitler's election victory). For centuries before the Holocaust we had no escape. Today there is Israel. Whether appreciated or not, the Diaspora needs Israel. But when the time comes, will Israel appear welcoming or ambivalent or, as at this moment, rejecting?
Who is a Jew is the abnegation of the Jewish People and Zionism. It is, in the eyes of the Diaspora, rejection, a declaration of intent.