Ben-Gurion was determined to show a united front to the British commission of inquiry. He wanted to strengthen the status of the Jewish Agency as the government in the wings and feared that the Agudat Yisrael party would break ranks. Among the British working subcommittees, several ideas were being considered, some of which the ultra-Orthodox leaders found attractive. A Jewish-Arab federation, for example, or the cantonization of Palestine could have provided cultural and religious autonomy for the haredim, without the hint of rebelling against Divine rule, an essential aspect of the aspiration to establish a Jewish state before the coming of the Messiah.
Ben-Gurion was willing to pay a heavy price for silence on the part of the haredi leadership. Yet they were also faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, they really and truly opposed the Zionist idea. On the other hand, they assumed that a state would be established. Would it be wise from their point of view, to stand by while political power was being divided among all the other parties aside from them?
This was how one of most incredibly infamous affairs of Mapai (the Labor Movement), the establishment of the status quo, came about.
The truth is that Ben-Gurion had already shown, decades before – during the elections to the Yishuv Assembly in 1920 – that it was acceptable to sacrifice one important principle for another, without blinking an eye. The ultra-Orthodox were opposed to having women participate in the voting for the pre-state institutions. Ben-Gurion did not want this to prevent them from taking part in the elections, since this would undermine the institutions’ status as representing everyone’s opinions. Together they came up with a bizarre solution. The ultra-Orthodox women would not vote, while the ballot of each haredi male would be counted as two votes. Deri, Yishai, Attias, and Gafni would get together and dance a jig if they could make an arrangement like this today. Even now, haredi women do not have the right to vote or be elected in their parties.
So the status quo was not handed down by Moses at Mt. Sinai, but by Ben-Gurion in Jerusalem. In a short letter, which he signed on June 19, 1947, he declared to Agudat Yisrael that the Jewish Agency’s executive empowered him to promise that: Shabbat would be the day of rest; kashrut would be observed in the kitchens of all government related institutions; laws of personal status would be administered so as to prevent the division of Beit Yisrael (in other words according to the laws of Moses and Israel in keeping with their Orthodox interpretation); haredi education, like the other educational streams, would be given autonomy; and "the government would not undermine, in any way, the religious consciousness or religious conscience of any part of the Jewish nation."
With regard to education, however, Ben-Gurion insisted on adding a condition: "The state will determine a minimum standard of compulsory education, including Hebrew language, history, science, etc., and monitor compliance with this standard, although each stream will be granted full autonomy to organize education in keeping with its conscience."
The laws of personal status that were forced on the citizens of Israel by virtue of that hastily drawn up document have caused endless tragedy and trouble. Ben-Gurion, who was certain that religion would in any event soon disappear into the annals of history, while he and his wife Paula were never married "according to the laws of Moses and Israel," arbitrarily bequeathed the keys to the Jewish identity of the state in the making to the Orthodox. What a historic mistake.
Yet his promises about education deserve scrutiny. It is interesting to note that in those days it was actually the haredim themselves who sought protection against the aggressive measures of the majority in the name of freedom of religion and consciousness. Unbelievable. Today, when the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements attempt to stand up for their rights in the name of those very same principles, Gafni, who rules the finance committee, and by extension the entire Knesset, with a heavy hand, does not hesitate to remove them from his committee.
Yet, Ben-Gurion's wise reservation about the autonomy of the various educational streams is even more interesting. He gives historic authorization to the present-day demand for studying the core curriculum in the ultra-Orthodox education system. "A minimum standard of compulsory education," he called it and went on to specify "Hebrew language, history, science, etc."
At this time, when more than one party has included a commitment to creating a new status quo in matters of religion and state in its platform, it is appropriate to take another look at this old document, if only to learn from its mistakes, and then, to quickly shred it.
Atty. Yizhar Hess is the Executive Director of the Masorti Movement