One of the givens within Israel is that it is and must be a Jewish state. This “Jewishness” is defined by the fact that the majority of its citizens are members of the Jewish people, and that Jewish tradition, culture, values, and even in some cases, law, are at times integrated into the state’s public space and political and legal structures. So long as the rights of minorities are protected and freedom of religion is preserved, these principles can coincide with Israel’s other defining aspiration - to be a democratic state.
The recent events within the ultra-Orthodox community, coupled with doomsday predictions of their rapid demographic growth, have caused many to question whether Israel’s Jewish and democratic synthesis is being threatened. How is it that a small segment of society can threaten to undermine the country’s identity and cause many Israelis and Jews worldwide to believe their country is being stolen from them?
We make a fundamental error when we place all the blame on the haredim, portraying them as a group manipulating a flawed political system to bring Israel to its knees. The source of haredi power and influence lies not in their actual or future size but in the failure of mainstream Israeli society to define for itself the meaning and boundaries of the Jewishness of the Jewish state.
When it comes to defining the Jewishness of Israel in the realm of citizenship, Israel adopted the most pluralistic and tolerant definition of any community in Jewish history, whereby matrilineal or patrilineal descent, conversion to Judaism by any recognized denomination, being married to a Jew, or even having one Jewish grandparent, all suffice to award Israeli citizenship.
The failure of modern Israel is that this standard of pluralism and tolerance was not applied to the second feature, that Israel is a place where Jewish traditions, values, and laws can be integrated into the public sphere. Instead of limiting these expressions to areas of Judaism where a broad consensus exists, Israelis gave the authority to determine these questions to the Orthodox alone. Because of the Zionist ambivalence toward religious Judaism, non-Orthodox Israelis relinquished their place at the table and allowed others to determine policy on issues from which they felt distant.
New conversation needed
So long as the price was not as high as the political payback, Israelis were willing to sell their birthright when it came to the Jewishness of the public square. In so doing, Israelis were not only alienating themselves but were willing to violate the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, which guarantee the rights and liberties of individuals.
To this day the Supreme Court applies Israel’s Basic Law of Human Rights and Dignity to protect minorities and political freedoms but never to undermine, for example, the monopoly of the Israeli Rabbinate on issues of marriage, divorce, and conversion. The haredi “invasion” of the public sphere is not the result of their increased power but an expression of the perpetuation of this passivity on the part of Israeli society.
The second defining foundation of haredi influence results from there being treated almost as if they were a separate ethnic minority within. Zionism wanted to create a “new Jew” and a new Judaism, and the haredim had no part in this. Haredim were allowed and even encouraged to create their own ghettoes under the hope that one day they would disappear.
A system of allowances was put into place to allow them to preserve their distinct identity, so long as “they” left “us” alone. Lip service was and is still offered advocating for full military service and integration into the job market on the part of the haredim. But the truth is non-Orthodox Israelis neither want haredim in their workplace nor in integrated military units.
The fundamental fault of the haredim was that they did not disappear but grew, and “their” space, in which Israel let them do as they willed, is now in all of our backyards. Israel finds itself in a Catch-22 of its own creation: We don’t want “them” in our workforce but can no longer support their unemployment. Their size now dictates that they more fully integrate into Israeli society, but most Israelis want them to change either before their integration or as a result of it.
Israeli society needs to begin a new conversation, not merely with the haredim, but with itself, a conversation which must confront the reality of Israel as a multicultural Jewish society. We must learn to think and talk about the rights of minorities and the spaces in which they may be allowed to pursue their distinct cultural, religious sensibilities and national identities.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, which next week will hold a conference titled "Planting social justice. Uprooting social gaps "