Sometimes historical mistakes have momentous consequences. David Ben-Gurion had to make certain decisions very quickly, and some of them had disastrous results that we need to deal with now.
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He did not see that by linking state and religion he was creating problems that would become insoluble. Moreover he effectively gave Orthodox Judaism a monopoly on religious affairs in Israel.
The results have become completely unpalatable. As a number of commentators -including former president of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Eric Yoffie - have pointed out, it is almost surreal that a racist bigot like current Chief Rabbi of Safed Mordechai Eliyahu is a viable candidate for the Sephardic Chief Rabbinate of Israel. There is no need to enumerate his racist views, as they have been documented time and again.
The current waves around the election of Chief Rabbis in Israel prove how totally anachronistic this very institution is. Anyone who has followed the recent hustling and the power-struggles in this election campaign cannot but agree. Every political party meddles in these elections, and the results are in part mind-boggling, as Rabbi Eliyahu’s candidacy shows.
A number of artists and intellectuals have signed a petition sent to Netanyahu demanding to oust Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party from the government for sponsoring Eliyahu’s candidacy and compare it to Jörg Heider’s Freedom Party in Austria and Meir Kahane’s Kach party that was outlawed from running for the Knesset.
Habayit Hayehudi has denied that it has endorsed Eliyahu, stating it is the position held by only some of its members. But this has not prevented the party from sponsoring the creation of a “Jewish Identity Administration” that is supposed to inculcate love of Judaism and the land of Israel in Israeli schools. It is headed by ex-chief IDF Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, who in the past has voiced highly problematic opinions about the rights of gentiles in Israel. The very notion of a “Jewish Identity Administration” is the type of institution generally associated with totalitarian states that decide how its citizens are supposed to be indoctrinated.
Even though Bennett seems worldly, educated and sophisticated, he shows dangerous signs of totalitarian thinking in his politics, if he actually believes that Israel needs a central authority that defines “Jewish values and the love of the land of Israel.” Judaism has never had the type of polit-bureau that defines ideological doctrine, and there is absolutely no reason for anything of the sort to start now.
But it should be made clear that neither Bennett’s party nor the likes of Rabbis Eliyhahu and Rabbi Ronsky represent Judaism as a whole. In fact they represent a rather narrow group: less than 15 percent of Jews worldwide define themselves as orthodox – and a large proportion of modern orthodoxy would find their views unacceptable. And the large majority of Jews worldwide are vehemently opposed to the ethnocentric and often-racist views these Rabbis endorse. The opposite is true: Jews in the Diaspora, primarily in the US have been at the forefront of human right causes including the civil rights movement.
While the proportion of Israelis holding such universalist values may be smaller than in the Jewish Diaspora, Rabbis Eliyahu and Ronsky do not represent the Israeli mainstream either. Israel’s legislation has been progressive in many ways. It has for example been very gay-friendly for decades, and a large proportion of Israelis are open to the world, curious and liberal rather than tribal, ethnocentric and reactionary. The problem is that Jewish moderates make a lot less noise than the extremists – with dire consequences.
Israel will have to choose at some point to which part of the world it wants to belong: to the West that has implemented separation of religion and state, or to the Islamic World that still has a long way to go until it realizes that politics and religion need to be separate.
The Western world has gone through a long and painful process that started with the ending of the dreadful Thirty Year War that left large parts of Europe destroyed in 1648. It began to realize that religion and politics must be separated. The process of getting there took centuries, but it is essential to modernity.
This is demonstrated by the great difficulty the Islamic world has had to move into modernity. Looking at the upheavals in the Arab world we can once again see how catastrophic the connection between state and religion is. Iraq has been locked into deadly struggles between religious sects for a decade now, and Syria is going through a horrible civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives so far. Egypt is now being sucked into the maelstrom of a fight between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and secularists, and no end of the conflict is in sight.
Fortunately Israel’s liberal-democratic institutions are firmly in place at this point. Even though the stranglehold of the orthodox establishment on central issues like marriage, divorce and kashrut is as yet firmly in place, there are good reasons to believe that in the long run this will change.
In order for this to happen it is of great importance that liberal-minded Israelis get to know Jewish life in the U.S. more closely. They need to realize that there are ways of being Jewish that are light-years removed from the narrow-mindedness of large proportions of the ultra-Orthodox and national-religions rabbinical establishment in Israel.
But they might find out that in Israel there are very different forms of Jewish identity as well. They could read books like Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s Jews and Words. Amos, one of Israel’s most celebrated writers and Fania, a respected historian, show ways in which secular Jews can enter a free and unforced dialogue with the long tradition of Jewish texts.
Israelis will realize that being Jewish by no means entails either ethnocentric or racist attitudes, and that the varieties of Jewish identities transcend the options presented by most of Israel’s orthodox rabbinical establishment. “To be a free people in our country,” means not only political sovereignty, but also the free choice to determine what it means for each of us to be Jewish.