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Op-Ed: Jewish identity is Israel's top priority

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's recent statement to enhance Jewish identity in Israel is a long overdue call to finally deal with the elephant that has been in the room since the founding of the state.
The Western Wall Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, justifiably envied for her looks and even more importantly, respected for her intellect, generated a storm of headlines last week when she spoke about the need to make Israel more Jewish and emphasize its Jewish identity.  

Ever since the establishment of the state, assiduous efforts have been made to avoid tackling this subject. Every time it came up, it was swept under the carpet of compromise and neglect as quickly as possible.

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This means that Jewish identity, which should be a core issue above everyday politics, has long been subverted to it.

For the first three decades, during which the Labor movement ran the country as its fief, Jewish identity was either marginalized or even attacked. Labor Zionism was at its heart a socialist movement, which shared socialism's general disdain for religion. Israel's Labor-led governments saw as one of their prime aims to create a new "Israeli Jew," free from the shackles of the exile of which religion was one of if not the biggest.  

Even many non-Socialist Zionists had scant respect for religion. Both Herzl and Jabotinsky were avowed nationalist secularists in the 19th-century European mold. It should be remembered that Zionism itself, the Jewish people's national movement, was, like all other European 19th century nationalist movements, conceived in a womb of nationalism and secularism.    

The vast majority of immigrants who poured into Israel between 1949-1954 (during which the state more than doubled its population) came from North Africa and the Middle East. They were traditional Jews, who had lived in societies that had not experienced European-style secularization. Some were more observant, some less so, but all were traditional and conservative. For them, return to a Jewish homeland was as much about faith as about national liberation.

The state, however, saw things differently. It regarded the fact that most of the newcomers were religious-traditional as a problem to be solved as expeditiously as possible. The means chosen was to force the immigrants to jettison their cultural baggage and identities, and immediately adopt the secular "new Jew" identity the state wanted them to.

Given the fact that the vast majority of the immigrants arrived as penniless refugees, the state expected them to toe the official line. Failure to do so resulted in various sanctions. These included thinly veiled threats regarding employment, or being placed in the ma'abara (transit camp) as government-funded housing. In some cases, children were kidnapped from their families and given to government-approved families in a government-approved and covered up (so far for over 50 years) black adoptions (the Yemenite Children Affair). It was during this period that the welfare authorities developed a very aggressive culture regarding removing kids from homes on dodgy grounds. On the flimsiest of evidence, authorities would remove children from their homes and send them to kibbutz-run boarding schools, where they were exposed to a secular, relatively permissive anti-religious environment. 

A person's cultural identity is one of their most precious belongings. The attempts by Labor to force them and their children to abandon theirs and adopt the Labor's left a lasting emotional scar, which accounts for the still simmering hostility and sometimes overt hatred towards Labor and the Israeli left among many of the second and third generations of those immigrants.

As part of the political deals of the day, the NRP (Religious Zionist/ National Religious party) was given control of the Rabbinate and the ministry of Religious Affairs.

In 1977, when the Likud came to power. This development also heralded an increase in the power of the Haredim (ultra-orthodox) parties at the expense of the NRP. Now the show was on the other foot, which wore it with a vengeance.

Under the NRP, the Rabbinate made some attempt to be at least minimally attentive to Israeli society. Since coming under Haredi control, it has adopted a bloody-minded attitude, attempting to force its reactionary brand of Jewish identity on the state in general, and down the throats of the secular in particular. Despite being a state institution, it openly flouts the laws on the state when they are incompatible with Halacha.

The most conspicuous victims of these policies are the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Due to high levels of intermarriage, and minimal exposure to Jewish identity, over 300,000 of the million who came following the USSR's collapse are not Halachically Jewish. They are eligible to immigrate to Israel under the law of return, which requires one Jewish grandparent of either gender, but not Jewish according to Halacha, which requires a Jewish mother. Their children and grandchildren cannot marry in Israel (no civil marriage). Even worse, over 100,000 of their children, who are the great-grandchildren of the Jewish ancestor, are constantly threatened with deportation after their 18th birthday. Since they are not technically Jewish, the  Ministry of the Interior, a Haredi fief, refuses to grant them citizenship despite the fact that they have grown up here, either having been born in Israel or arrived as young kids with their parents. Only constant interventions by the Supreme Court have prevented any such deportations from taking place. The fact that this flouts not only common decency but also the will of the vast majority of the population does not deter the Rabbinate from pursuing its racist clerical agenda.    

The past several years have also seen the State, pressured by the Haredim, enable the Rabbinate to take increasingly hostile actions against the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, despite the fact that a majority of world Jewry is not Orthodox. The Chief Rabbis and leading Haredi politicians regularly incite against them, calling them Christians, idol worshippers and missionaries, and describing their synagogues as churches. They pressured the government into breaking the agreement regarding non-Orthodox services at the Western Wall, turning Judaism's holiest site into a no-go zone for any non-Orthodox Jew wishing to pray there according to their customs and tradition. Under pressure from the Rabbinate, police regularly harass Reform and Conservative activists and have even illegally arrested them at the Wall.  

Ayelet Shaked Photo Credit: Channel 2 News

I agree with very little of what Ayelet Shaked says and does, and my vision of what Israel's Jewish identity should be is very different from hers. I do agree with her that this discussion is long overdue. The fact that a graduate of Israel's secular education system with an excellent matric certificate is a total ignoramus when it comes to the most basic Jewish knowledge is a disgrace. I'm not calling for prayer in secular schools, but I do think a high school graduate should have some basic knowledge of what a Jewish service is. I'm talking about the basics here, like the Shema Yisrael, the Amidah and the Kaddish.

Ultimately, Israel was founded as the Jewish national homeland. This means it must develop a Jewish identity all Jews, or at the very least, all Jews who identify with one of the main streams (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist- specifically excluding Jews for Jesus and other such marginal Messianic groups) can identify and feel at home with. 

Jewish identity is too important to become merely another sphere of politics, subject to the whims of political wheeling-dealing. The state should not be in the business of deciding which Jewish identity is kosher, and which isn’t.

It can and should, however, use its power to proactively encourage and promote debate and discussion of this issue both within Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Only through such a process can the country gradually begin developing a Jewish identity compatible with an age of Jewish sovereignty in which approximately half the world's Jews live in an independent Jewish state while the other half remains in the Diaspora. This is a long-term project, and the sooner it starts the better.

The Haredi attempt to monopolize Judaism and Jewish identity in Israel has already resulted in a justified backlash by both secular and even moderately traditional Israelis, and the Reform and Conservative public in the US.

In Israel, over 20% of Jews deliberately choose to bypass the Rabbinate when they get married as they want nothing to do with what they regard as a corrupt coercive institution. In the US, the divide between non-Orthodox, especially the X generation and millennials, and Israel has never been greater.

If the current trajectories continue, the results will be tragic for all of us. Israel will cease to be the national homeland of all Jews, becoming instead merely the homeland for the Orthodox. The non-Orthodox will give Israel a get, severely, perhaps even fatally weakening Israel's political standing in the US. This would have a major impact on US policy and erode Israel's legitimacy.

Israel's legitimacy is based on the right of the Jewish nation to self-determination, a right guaranteed to every nation. The day Israel ceases being the Jewish national homeland for all Jews, but only the Orthodox Jewish state, is the day it loses its legitimacy, becoming a pariah state. North Korea can perhaps survive as such a state, Israel cannot and will not.

We have been here before. The issue of Jewish identity was what caused the demise of the Hasmonean Kingdom. During the relatively short Babylonian exile, Jewish identity dramatically changed. Synagogue replaced temple, rabbi replaced priest, and public prayer replaced sacrifice. After the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty and the rebuilding of the Temple, the priests wanted the rabbis to disappear, saying they were no longer needed. The movement, which called for a Judaism, focused on priest, sacrifice and temple and became known as the Sadducees, a corruption of the name Tsadok, an influential and powerful priestly family. The movement for rabbinical reform became known as the Pharisees, the Greek pronunciation of “perushim,” which means interpretations, as they believed in reinterpreting Judaism. Rabbinical Judaism started out as the Reform Judaism of its day.  

Just as is happening today, Jewish identity, instead of being beyond politics, became part of it. It poisoned the nation's body politic to the point where civil war broke out. The result of this ultimately inconclusive war was the weakening of the Kingdom to the point where it became what we would call today a failed state. When Pompey marched into Jerusalem in 63 BCE, he faced minimal opposition. The state had neither army nor any other functioning institutions, and much of the populace preferred Roman occupation to unending strife and chaos in what had become a failed state.

Ultimately, Rome solved the question of Jewish identity. The destruction of the Temple turned the Sadducees into an irrelevancy, enabling Rabbinical Judaism to emerge triumphant as the basis for Jewish identity.


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JOL Blogger | Yoni Ariel

Yoni was born in South Africa, where he is known as Jonathan Schwartz. He fled to Israel as a political exile. He served in the ANC and subsequently worked with the ANC leadership and Nelson Mandela.

He worked for many years as a journalist. He was the News Editor at Makor Rishon and Editor-in-Chief of both Ma’ariv International and JOL.

He currently works as an entrepreneur and strategic consultant. He worked closely with former Defense Minister Benyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer and has worked with other politicians who entered public life after serving in the IDF or other security agencies. In addition, he was a contributing writer to The Encyclopedia of Military Science (Sage Publications), produced by University of Tennessee, as part of its ROTC program.      


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