The Israeli government’s recent decision to freeze a plan for a mixed-sex prayer space at the Western Wall, in order to appease the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, may create an irreversible rift in the relations between the State of Israel and world Jewry. Jewish organizations around the world have publicly criticized the government’s decision in an unprecedented tone. They are disappointed both in the government of Israel, which threw pluralistic Jews under the bus of Israeli politics, and in Israeli society, which is largely indifferent to this issue.
Theodor Herzl and other Zionist leaders and intellectuals strived to turn Zionism into the national movement of the entire Jewish People and to turn the State of Israel into its nation state. Former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s writings demonstrate how he aspired to transform the State of Israel into a spiritual centre and source of strength for the Jewish People. Clearly, there was a structural tension between these visions and the secular nature of the State of Israel, not to mention the classical Zionist perspective that called on all Jews to immigrate to Israel and asserted that Jewish life in the Diaspora is incomplete.
In 1951, when the ultra-Orthodox parties asked Ben-Gurion to release 400 yeshiva students from military service, so that they could devote their lives to studying the Torah, Ben-Gurion seized the opportunity to abate this tension by closing a deal with them and officially recognizing the exclusive authority of the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate of Israel over all matters relating to religious status. Thus, secular Israelis exempted the ultra-Orthodox from military service and work, and, in return, the ultra-Orthodox exempted secular Israelis from the effort of practising Judaism by creating a “Jewish public sphere.”
Over time, the unintended result was that the identity of many secular Israelis – who make up the largest Jewish group in Israel – was realized only through their sense of Jewish nationalism. Thus, important elements of the communal Jewish DNA were lost. The role of world Jewry was gradually reduced to providing financial and political support to Israel, while Israelis showed a lack of interest in, and even arrogance toward, Jews living in the Diaspora. Ultimately, Israel has ceased to be a microcosm of the Jewish world.
Secularism in Israel has often been confused with a pluralistic stream of Judaism. While it is true that the Orthodox monopoly in Israel has been criticized by secular Israelis, the strict interpretation of Jewish practices by the Orthodox Jewish rabbinate created a one-dimensional perception of what Judaism is in the eyes of many Israelis. Thus, religious issues that were a subject of concern to Jewish communities worldwide – such as the rabbinate’s rigid standards of conversion, the status of female rabbis and the Kotel plan – have generated little attention in Israel. As Ben-Gurion once said, “the synagogue most secular Israelis will not attend is Orthodox.”
These dynamics pose a real challenge to Israel and to Jewish continuity and identity worldwide. The very raison d’être of Zionism is undermined when Israel fails to fulfill its mission as the nation state of the entire Jewish People. Moreover, the consequent erosion of communal cohesion undermines Israel’s ability to withstand the ongoing assaults on its legitimacy.
The gap between world Jewry and Jewish society in Israel cannot be explained only by examining Israelis’ attitudes toward Judaism and Jews in the Diaspora, but it is nonetheless an important factor. Addressing this challenge requires first and foremost that Israeli leaders recognize this issue as critical, take ownership of Jewish identity and continuity, and promote the emergence of a civil society that’s engaged in Jewish life.
World Jewry plays an important role in engaging and empowering Israeli society and organizations to support pluralistic Judaism. The good news is that more and more organizations, educational programs and even the Israeli media are bringing the story of world Jewry to Israelis. As Ben-Gurion once said, “Anyone who believes that history cannot be changed has never tried to write his own memoirs.”
Eran Shayshon is the CEO of the Reut Group. Avraham Infeld is president emeritus of Hillel International.