The latest crisis between Israel and American Jews was kicked off last week when Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Conservative and Reform movements are considered Jewish for the purposes of the Law of Return and are therefore considered Israeli citizens. At first glance, this should not necessarily be an issue that involves Diaspora Jews at all; Israel already recognizes conversions performed by non-Orthodox denominations outside of Israel for people who later make aliyah, so the ruling impacts only those who already live in Israel. Yet in touching off yet another round of Israeli leaders decrying the denominations to which the overwhelming number of American Jews belong, the conversion decision raises the question of what it means to describe Israel as a Jewish state.
Denunciations of recognition of Conservative and Reform conversions came fast and furious from the predictable quarters. The Haredi UTJ party aired a television ad with scenes of obviously tongue-in-cheek “bark mitzvahs” followed by pictures of dogs dressed in kippot and tallitot, sarcastically asserting that they are all considered Jewish according to the Supreme Court and ending with the tagline that only UTJ will protect your Judaism, your kids, and your grandkids. Chief Rabbi David Lau said that anyone undergoing a non-Orthodox conversion is not Jewish, Likud MK Miki Zohar called the decision disastrous for the state, and the Likud Twitter account said that the ruling endangered the foundation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Being that approximately 90% of American Jews identify as something other than Orthodox, the dismay on this side of the ocean at the reactions from Israeli politicians–some of whom themselves are nowhere near Orthodox observance or belief–denigrating Conservative and Reform Jews is predictable and understandable. Jews don’t like other Jews telling them that they are not really Jewish or sufficiently Jewish, and so even though the debate inside of Israel is theoretically an instance of Israeli Jews reacting to an Israeli court decision impacting policies that take place exclusively inside of Israel and that apply only to Israeli citizens and would-be citizens, non-Orthodox American Jews are going to take this debate personally. Pile on to this the fact that the very notion of Jewish denominations is a foreign concept to most Israelis and thus discussing Conservative and Reform Judaism has a xenophobic tinge to it, which makes Conservative and Reform Jews in the U.S. feel as if they are being told that they have no stake in Israel because they are outside interlopers. Once again, we see the dynamic playing out of Israeli Jews and American Jews being divided not by security policy or political worldview, but on basic questions of Jewish identity.
Leaving aside the practical implications for converts in Israel–which are very consequential–there is a larger philosophical question that Israelis should be asking themselves about their position with regard to non-Orthodox conversions. It is a question of what it means that Israel is a Jewish state, and how far those aspirations go. In shorthand, is Israel a Jewish state, or is Israel the Jewish state?
If Israel is a Jewish state, it can mean a number of things. It can mean that Israel has a majority-Jewish population. It can mean that Israel is governed by Jewish tradition and the Jewish calendar, with Yom Kippur a holiday where the country shuts down rather than Christmas and with Purim the holiday featuring costumes and parties rather than Halloween. It can mean kosher food in state institutions, and leaven being proscribed for sale on Passover. And it can even mean ultra-Orthodox domination of the kashrut industry, conversion, and life cycle events such as marriages and funerals. All of this makes Israel a Jewish state, but it does not necessarily give Israel the more universal claim to being the state of all Jews.
Describing Israel not as a Jewish state, but as the Jewish state brings with it a different set of requirements. Doing so means being open to all Jews, no matter the denomination, and accepting that being the Jewish state goes hand in hand with a commitment to worldwide Jewish pluralism. The fact that the Conservative and Reform movements are marginal in Israel compared to their status in the U.S. doesn’t matter, and neither does it matter that secular Israelis largely turn to Orthodox institutions and figures when they require Jewish ritual (whether by choice, by inertia, or by coercion is a separate debate). The question of Israelis’ relationship to Conservative and Reform Judaism is a question about Israeli society, whereas the question of Israel’s relationship to movements that encompass millions of Jews around the world is a question about Israel’s claim to being the sovereign homeland for all Jews. It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to assign that latter status to Israel if the state refuses to accept the legitimacy of all but one strain of Judaism, and assigns that one strain an absolute gatekeeper role. If that is the case, then Israel will be a Jewish state and the Orthodox state, but will not be able to assert that it welcomes and serves as the single homeland for all Jews.
Divisions between Jews are nothing new. The political and religious sectarianism of first century Judea involved competing claims of authenticity, accusations of heresy, and refusal to accept the legitimacy of differences anywhere one wanted to look. The difference is that those sectarian fights were not about a secular state enforcing the policies of one sect on everyone in a way that would determine citizenship or Jewish status. Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations will continue to argue until the end of time, and Orthodoxy is by definition going to view non-Orthodoxy as falling short in some way. When this spills over into tangible implications for which people Israel views as Jewish or not, however, it goes beyond denominational arguments to Israel’s own self-proclaimed status. If Israel wants to be seen as the Jewish state, there needs to be a rethinking of what that means and what obligations it entails.