What makes the Jewish state a Jewish state? The number and variety of possible answers is testament to the diversity within the broad ‘church’ of Zionism:.
One group however who should not get to decide on what makes the state Jewish, are those who do not recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist project in the first place. Of all the absurdities in the dysfunctional religion-and-state situation in Israel, perhaps the most objectionable is the overarching reality that much of the Jewish content of the Zionist state is determined by the non/anti-Zionist leadership of the charedi community.
The charedim control the Chief Rabbinate which decides who can get married and who cannot; which restaurant is certified kosher and which is not. And just to make things that little bit more ridiculous, the charedi population itself has its own marriage authority and kashrut authority – because they don’t want to recognize the state-approved Chief Rabbinate. It sounds like a joke, except for the majority (for now) of Israeli Jews who are not charedi, it’s really not that funny.
The last couple of years saw a slight but significant diminution of charedi influence with the Yesh Atid-led reforms in the name of “sharing the burden”. The headline-grabber was the legislation to coerce charedim into military (or non-military national) service, but the more critical loosening of the charedi millstone around the state’s neck was the cutting of tens of millions of shekels of state and municipal funding for charedi schools that do not teach science, math or English.
In the last couple of days, it has become clear that the putative new government, still being formed, will reverse these changes. As part of his coalition deal with the ashkenasi charedi party United Torah Judaism, Benjamin Netanyahu will put Israeli taxpayers, once again, in the role of funders of a school system that produces largely unemployable young men. This is not just grossly unfair, but potentially disastrous for Israel in the long-term. More than half of charedi households live below the poverty line – a direct result of a system which keeps charedi men studying in the kollel, unable to find a job even if they want to. The charedi population growing much faster then the general Israeli population; 20 percent of children now in Israel elementary schools are charedi. Israel is heading towards an economic catastrophe as long these children face an adulthood of poverty and dependency on government handouts.
There is nothing Jewish about this situation. On the contrary, Jewish law and cultural norms are expressly violated by deliberately denying young men the tools required to earn a living and to support their families.
On the same day that this reprehensible coalition agreement was signed, it was announced that Israel, with its 8 million people, had sent a larger delegation of aid-workers and doctors to Nepal than any country except India (population 1.2 billion). In the context of diaspora Jewry, there is justified concern and criticism that the focus on a universalist ‘tikkun olam’ narrative at the expense of particularist Jewish traditions and mitzvot, renders Judaism indistinguishable from any other ethical creed – religious or humanist. But Israel is intrinsically Jewishly particularist, and here Judaism is routinely defined by the charedi-run religious establishment.
We should not allow the state-appointed Rabbis to have the monopoly on what constitutes Jewish values or Jewish expression. Our small, 67-year old Jewish state has contributed disproportionately to wider humanity through its extraordinary achievements in medical technology, agricultural innovation and – as demonstrated in recent days – by our goodwill and willingness to donate this expertise to those suffering in other parts of the world.
The early Zionists, liberal and socialist, secular and religious, all saw a future Jewish state as an or la’goyim, a light unto the nations. The more than 250 Israelis helping the stricken in Nepal exemplify what makes Israel Jewish. Conversely, the incoming government, by facilitating charedi control over public resources and social policy, undermines the Zionist vision of a flourishing Jewish state.