Israel’s Conversion Crisis

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Israel has had great success providing a home for Jews from around the world. The increasing diversity that results from each wave of immigrants poses challenges for the Jewish state, however; chief among which are those that highlight the tensions inherent in the relationship in Israel between religion and state. Such tensions are on display in this 2010 Commentary article by Mati Wagner exploring Israel’s “conversion crisis,” which profiles individuals whose Jewish identities are brought into doubt as different factions of rabbis vie for the state power of deciding who is a Jew.

Wagner’s article raises important questions: Can Israel indeed provide a home to all those persecuted as Jews when the state operates with political and religious definitions of who is Jewish that are distinct and at times at odds? Does granting state power to some religious authorities ultimately promote Israel’s Jewish character, or does it, rather, divide its people?

Israel and Diaspora Jews, especially those in America, have always differed on the issue of Jewish identity. Wide Israeli support for Orthodoxy’s monopoly over religion in Israel goes back to the establishment of the state. Of all the secular Jewish movements that grew out of the 19th-century Jewish enlightenment, known as the Haskala, Zionism was the one that integrated itself most profoundly with its people’s tradition. In their push to reestablish Jewish sovereignty, and their goal of creating a “new Jew,” Zionists needed tradition to explain the Jewish people’s special connection to the land of Israel, to co-opt the idea of chosenness, and to promote social cohesion as a nation. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, understood the centrality of tradition to Jewish nationalism and made a pact with the Orthodox establishment of his day, giving it control over strictly religious matters such as marriage and divorce, building synagogues and mikvaot [ritual baths], and assuming responsibility over burials. Secular Zionists, who had been the driving force behind the creation of the state, would control everything else. . . .

Under the circumstances, a Jeffersonian separation of Church—or Synagogue—and State, so highly praised by Alexis de Tocqueville and therefore instrumental in the diversity of religious expression in America, was out of the question in Israel. In the Diaspora, Jewish practice could be restricted to one’s private life. In Israel, by contrast, issues such as determining citizenship in a nominally Jewish state obligated a working definition of who exactly was a Jew. But the fusion of traditional Judaism with the revolutionary aspects of Zionism was choked with tension. The formation of the Jewish people is tied to its Covenant with God, an inherently religious concept. One was either born into the Jewish people or joined them by accepting the covenant with God via conversion. Zionism was a movement whose purpose was to create a Jewish sovereignty that was also a liberal democracy. In such a state, how could an inherently religious act such as conversion be a criterion for citizenship? Why couldn’t non-Jews who identified with Zionism join as well?

To this day, the tension exists.

Read the whole essay in Commentary.

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