Israel’s Next Battle Will Center on the Conflict Over Its Founding

Joseph Dana

As the world’s only self-described Jewish state, Israel views itself as the leader of the Jewish world and the arbiter of modern Jewish identity. The problem is, no one can agree on the definition of a Jew or how Judaism should be articulated in a modern nation-state. These debates are nothing new, but in recent months they have reached a fever pitch as Israel’s parliament passed a contentious nationality law and the arrest of an American rabbi underscored the primacy of conservatives over liberals. Israel is tearing itself apart over Judaism. Its ontological question now is also an issue of survival for the state. Given the nature of Israel’s myriad internal and external conflicts, the internal division currently rending Israeli society factors heavily in Tel Aviv’s decision making. For Palestinians and others in the Middle East, Israel’s internal politics are just as important as its external posturing.

For decades, Israel has marketed itself as an outpost of Western liberalism in the Middle East. The region’s “only democracy” is a constant claim by Tel Aviv’s PR machine. The reality is much different. Ancient Orthodoxy plays a central role in civic and political life, despite the modern Zionist movement’s role in creating Israel in 1948. Early Zionist leaders were assimilated Europeans, secular Jews ambivalent toward Orthodoxy. Far from promoting the creation of a Jewish religious state, they believed a secular Jewish nation-state would ultimately facilitate Jewish inclusion in European society.

Nevertheless, Zionism was forced to confront and uncomfortably embrace religion. Jewish religious leaders were generally antagonistic toward the Zionist project, as for them only the return of the Messiah could bring about the reconstruction of a Jewish polity. A secular European-style Jewish state was essentially considered an apostate entity; however, Zionist leaders needed the cover offered by the Orthodox establishment and, ultimately, cut deals with several religious communities around the world. In exchange for not serving in the military or engaging in mainstream civic life, Orthodox communities relocated to Israel, set up networks of religious educational institutions and gave the state a veneer of religiosity.

A crucial part of the bargain involved the nascent Israeli state ceding control over civil matters such as marriage and divorce to the religious establishment. The definition of who is a Jew, and thus entitled to full civil rights, is in Orthodox hands. The roots of the internal religious division ripping the country apart today stem from the moment the Orthodox were granted power over Israel’s civil complexion.

Orthodox Judaism defines a Jew as someone born to a Jewish mother. This matrilineal understanding of Judaism has not changed for thousands of years and now has created enormous headaches for contemporary authorities. Can Israel prevent those facing anti-Semitic persecution in Europe from seeking refuge in the “Jewish” state? The answer is no, but accepting anyone as a Jew if they had one Jewish grandparent on either the father or mother’s side is also, unsettlingly, the same definition used by Adolf Hitler.

Even then, the reality is that those without a Jewish mother don’t receive full civic privileges such as the ability to marry legally inside Israel, since the Orthodox rabbinate regulates marriage.

As Judaism has transformed throughout the world, “secular” versions of the religion have become the norm. In the US, home to over six million Jews, a Reform version is one of the most dominant streams. Intermarriage is prevalent and the number of people self-identifying as Jewish, but without a Jewish mother, is high.

While many of these communities have expressed serious disdain for Israel’s political direction and its treatment of Palestinians, they also profess allegiance to the Jewish state. The problem for them is that the Jewish state doesn’t recognize their Jewishness in return. Over the last decade, this division has accelerated at Jewish holy sites. At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, Orthodox authorities prohibit services common in the US, where men and women worship together.

This summer, a prominent conservative rabbi from America was arrested for the crime of officiating non-Orthodox wedding ceremonies. With this aggressive measure, Israeli authorities are sending a clear message to diaspora communities: Orthodox Judaism is the only acceptable form of Judaism in Israel.

This is an existential crisis for the Israeli political class, which relies on the financial and political support of Jewish communities around the world. How can Israeli leaders count on the support of American Jewish communities if they don’t allow them to practice the religion in the manner they see fit? Moreover, the Orthodox hold over civic life and legal structures challenges Israel’s narrative of being a liberal oasis in the Middle East – one of the arguments it trots out in hopes of gaining support from non-Jews abroad.

For decades the Israeli government has attempted to divert attention from this internal debate. The Palestinian conflict has been used as a convenient distraction. The argument the politicians make is that Israelis can’t argue about religion when there are so many enemies around them; Israel’s existential threat trumps its internal societal challenges. But that defense is running thin.

With the passage of the Nation-State bill that seeks to affirm Israel’s Jewish character, this debate has only become amplified. As such, the country’s internal division threatens its security far more than the perception of any external threat. As, particularly, American Jewish patience grows noticeably thin, Israeli authorities will find that their ability to divert attention to the Palestinian issue simply doesn’t hold as much power as it once did. This moment is unfolding now.

Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.