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Contentions

Israel’s Jewish Identity Debate

It has now been a couple of weeks since Israel Channel 2’s explosive news broadcast on haredi extremism in Beit Shemesh dramatically increased public awareness of the shameful protests that city has endured against young girls walking to and from school. As Jonathan noted soon after the broadcast first aired, the oft-heard idea that it represents a threat to Israeli democracy is a wild exaggeration.

More interesting though is the question of what the growth and power of the haredi community means to Israel’s future Jewish character. The inevitable English-language articles have now begun to appear in the American Jewish press, pointing in their own ways to this central Jewish debate over identity.

A sensible approach to the problem, exemplified best by Jay Michaelson at The Forward, is to try to cut off diaspora financial support for haredi-controlled institutions and to press for their deeper integration.

But the unseen pitfalls of a robust approach to the issue are also on display in an article for Tablet by Erin Kopelow and Ariel Beery (full disclosure: I am a former classmate of Ariel’s at the Jewish Theological Seminary and I volunteered for a time on his magazine, PresenTense) that confuses the issue with the far more difficult question of official “discrimination” against non-Orthodox Jews.

It is true that Jews like Kopelow–who was born and raised in Canada to a mother who underwent a Conservative conversion unrecognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate, which therefore deems her not to be Jewish–who were raised as Jews, who have committed to a life in Israel, and who observe Shabbat and keep a kosher home besides, should be fully embraced as Jews by the Jewish state. The same can be said for the hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews born and raised in Israel whose Jewishness is similarly denied. (Although we may ask what would rightfully prevent them from undergoing a simple ceremony that would remove any doubt to their status if one was made available to them.)

Still, this is not the simple question of electoral math it is generally portrayed as. Yes, Israeli governments from the founding of the state have included religious parties in order to achieve the necessary majority to govern, and yes it is at the insistence of these forces that David Ben-Gurion acquiesced to the “status quo” agreement of rabbinic control over matters of personal status (i.e. marriage and death) and yeshiva student exemption from military service.

But Ben-Gurion and other powerful Labor Zionist leaders like Berl Katznelson understood as well that these compromises were about more than just seat counting in the Knesset. For a Jewish state raises the question of what its Jewish content is to be. In eliding the question of what is to make Israel Jewish if the deep divisions that separate various Jewish streams are papered over, Kopelow and Beery simplify a problem that cuts to the core of Israel’s definition and that has no easy answers. It is easy enough to say Israel must not be a state governed by the most extreme interpretations of Jewish tradition. It is far harder to articulate a vision for a Jewish state that both resonates with the tradition yet accords to the dramatic realignment of the Jewish condition that modern Jewish political independence represents.

There are smart thoughts being discussed about this question, by Evelyn Gordon and Hadassah Levy in a recent issue of Azure, and perhaps most of all by 2011 Israel Prize winner Ruth Gavison. They point a path toward a solution to a problem that won’t be solved by negation of the haredi position alone. We should be paying closer attention.


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