Tisha Be’Av and the future of Zionism

Our leaders must aim to incorporate fellow Jews.

Palestinians who marry Arab Israelis and wish to receive Israeli citizenship will be required to take an oath of loyalty to “the Jewish and democratic state,” the cabinet ruled on Sunday. The decision amends a May 2002 cabinet vote which effectively rescinded the right of Palestinians married to Israelis to “family unification.” Human rights organizations sharply criticized Israel for singling out Palestinians for discrimination while other non-Israelis were entitled to gain Israeli citizenship via marriage. Sunday’s vote to require a pledge of allegiance is an attempt to keep out Palestinians potentially inimical to the Jewish state while at the same time upholding the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom.
But the cabinet decision also raises a more fundamental question regarding the relevance of a “Jewish, democratic” state in the 21st century. In principle, there need be no inherent conflict between the two values. Israel’s flag, anthem, national holidays, heroes and religion can reflect dominant Jewish culture without this in any way infringing on the basic human rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minority. Even the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews, can be justified in light of similar “discriminatory” repatriation laws adopted by Greece, Germany, Finland, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia and Armenia.
However, this delicate balance between the state’s “Jewish” and “democratic” aspects has come under attack recently from diverse political camps within the Jewish people. On the Left, post-Zionists, ignoring or rejecting as illegitimate the Jewish people’s desire for self-determination in a state with a common culture and a shared heritage, criticize the Jewishness of the state as an obstacle to democracy and liberalism. Even in its mildest forms post-Zionism calls for the “normalization” of the State of Israel, which can include the changing of its very name. The Law of Return is most commonly singled out for censure as anachronistic if not racist, apparently under the assumption that Israel no longer needs to serve as a safe haven from anti-Semitism.
On the Right, meanwhile, Israel’s democratic character is suspect and hard-earned liberal freedoms are not fully appreciated. The results of this undemocratic slide include the Knesset’s recent decision to revoke three key parliamentary privileges from Balad MK Haneen Zuabi as punishment for her provocative support for the Turkish flotilla and Education Minister Gidon Sa’ar’s declaration that he would penalize university lecturers who support a boycott against Israel.
Still another threat to the “Jewish and democratic” equation comes from the Orthodox Jewish camp, which in recent weeks, together with Israel Beiteinu, has attempted to pass conversion legislation that would redefine Israel’s “Jewish” dimension in a decidedly narrow, exclusionary way. In the past, the answer to the “Who is a Jew?” question has purposely remained broad and inclusive in an attempt to embrace as many members of the Jewish people as possible. But now Israel Beiteinu’s legislation proposes to give the haredi-controlled chief rabbinate “responsibility over conversions.” If the bill is passed, which is looking increasing unlikely, it would alienate Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and non-affiliated Jews who would find it hard, if not impossible, to identify with a “Jewishness” defined in accordance with Orthodox criteria.
ON TISHA BE’AV, as the Jewish people remember the terrible price paid for infighting and divisiveness, Israel’s leaders should be looking for ways to incorporate, not alienate, fellow Jews.
Zionism, more than any other Jewish movement in modern history, has succeeded in bringing together diverse Jewish streams and persuasions – from secular liberals to ultra-Orthodox pietists, from socialists to religious Zionist settlers. Zionism’s future success is dependent upon its ability to uphold both a broad, inclusive Jewish identity as well as a healthy democracy. The vast majority of Jews must continue to feel comfortable pledging allegiance to a Jewish and democratic State of Israel.
If they do not, how can we expect non-Jews to?