The question of "who is a Jew?" has been debated since Israel attained statehood. It is a fundamental question for matters of citizenship and marriage here. But as with many other issues, the emphasis is not always on the primary essence of the question: We deal with matters of quantity, rather than quality. Even if we manage to solve the issue of quantity, and we find a way to integrate hundreds of thousands of olim who are not Jewish according to halacha - and Jews abroad find a way to slow the rate of assimilation in their communities - we will still be left with the issue of quality.
What will be the nature of the State of Israel in another generation or two? Democracy is a necessary but insufficient condition. There are currently three main alternatives struggling to define the nature of Judaism here. Should no changes be forthcoming, each one will bring about the end of Israel as the home of the Jewish people.
The first alternative is the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). Is this the flag that could or should unite us? On the one hand, it could be argued that their uncompromising traditions may be the only glue that can prevent widespread assimilation, as seen in Diaspora communities. On the other hand, this population has produced no significant uprising against its rampant shirking of the draft in a country facing clear and present existential threats. It also has produced no large-scale, organized dissension against a leadership that prevents its grade-school students from receiving a core curriculum necessary to survive and thrive in a modern economy and society. Is this the enlightened Judaism that continues the path of Maimonides, who was one of our greatest rabbis - and also a physician?
The second alternative, that of the Orthodox Jews who serve in the army and work for a living, could have been the bridge between the modern world and traditional Judaism. These are observant Jews who excel in furthering Israel's society and economy. But where is the massive group organizing to save this population from a leadership with selective democratic principles when it comes to settling the whole of the Land of Israel, a leadership with no compunctions against encouraging its soldiers to rebel against orders not to its liking - even at the cost of fostering a behavioral cancer in the army that could rapidly spread to other parts of society that object to various policies of the elected government?
The third alternative trying to define Israel's Jewish character is that of the secular Jews. This is the Israeli version of the modern secular world. However, what added value does secular Judaism offer future generations, so that they will choose to remain in the Jewish state, and risk their lives and those of their children to preserve this nation? What kind of thread could bind sabras, who are strangers to synagogues, with their brothers abroad - be they Orthodox, Conservative or Reform - who are unfamiliar with a Judaism unconnected to the temple?
These three alternatives in their current forms - individually and as a group - represent a dead end for the Jewish state. If this country does not learn to separate between religion and politics - which corrupts religion - we will find it extremely difficult to create another alternative, where pluralism, defining the future character of Judaism, could flourish.
The author teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University.
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