Opinion |

What Remains of Israel's ‘Jewish Character’?

Anat Kamm
Anat Kamm
People wearing face masks at a Tel Aviv beach, in 2020.
People wearing face masks at a Tel Aviv beach, in 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Anat Kamm
Anat Kamm

One of the issues racist Jews like to raise periodically is the fear of “losing Israel’s Jewish character.” In their view, this problem stems from several things, such as; marriages between Jews and non-Jews, infrastructure work on Shabbat and, of course, absorbing non-Jewish refugees from conflict-affected areas around the world, as if a few tens of thousands of genocide survivors from Darfur, victims of Syrian President Bashar Assad or Ukrainian migrants would shake the foundations of our life here.

While the fear of losing the country's Jewish character should be dismissed since it is our moral obligation to take in and assist these persecuted people, we must also consider another question; what is exactly this Jewish character that leads the country, out of concern for preserving it, to refuse time after time to do what’s morally right.

Israel’s Jewish character is anchored in an elusive status quo on issues of religion and state that was determined before its establishment. Under the arrangement, the state-in-the-making agreed to be strict about observing kashrut and Shabbat and to let Judaism dictate matrimonial laws and education.

The Chief Rabbinate received exclusivity in enforcing some of these principles, and various other issues derived from them – for instance, its exclusive right to decide who is a Jew and which conversions to accept.

The arrangement also entailed not drafting yeshiva students to the military. This began with an agreement not to draft a few hundred people so that they could study Torah, but in recent years, the number of people who aren’t drafted has reached tens of thousands.

What actually remains of all this? The food served by cafeterias in government offices, the army and the Prison Service is all kosher. Government agencies don’t work on Shabbat except in emergencies, and marriage and divorce according to Jewish law are possible only through the Rabbinate.

But there are accessible alternatives to almost all of the above. Is a civil servant allowed to bring a ham and cheese sandwich to work from home – something obtainable in every medium to large sized town or city? Absolutely. Is a prisoner allowed to put a slice of yellow cheese on the hot dogs served at lunch? Of course. Is it possible to sign a common-law marriage agreement, not to mention going to Prague, Larnaca or New York to marry, and thereby bypass the rabbinate? Yes (though this isn’t true for divorce).

    With Shabbat as well, apart from ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods, there’s no complete shutdown. In Haifa, public transportation still runs, and in the central region, public/private initiatives to provide bus service on Shabbat are on the rise.

    Shared taxis also provide a convenient and inexpensive way to travel between cities on weekends (a trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem costs 25 shekels, or $7.75, slightly more than a train ticket). You can find stores and restaurants open in many places.

    Anyone who wants to observe kashrut and Shabbat can do it. And anyone who doesn’t want to doesn’t have to.

    What still remains are the Jewish holidays and the national and school vacations connected to them. But even these aren’t dramatically different from similar vacations in other school systems in much of the world. School begins in September, there’s a long winter vacation during Christmas/Hanukkah, a spring break around Pesach/Easter and a long summer vacation from June to August. That’s the case in Israel, Britain and the United States.

    In other words, this Jewish character – the one so fragile and threatened that in its name and for its sake, Israel closes its doors to people who need its help, people who don’t plan or want to take over its institutions and aren’t capable of doing so in any case – is a non-issue. It has become one because it has gone obsolete all by itself, not because a critical mass of non-Jews entered the country due to some circumstance or another.

    And since it no longer exists, it also can’t continue serving as a pretext for racists who simply don’t want to see people who are different from them in their vicinity.

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