JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

The Jewish State and the Jewish People(s)

As the ties that bind give way, Jews in the future are likely to have a great deal of trouble explaining themselves to one another, asserts Hillel Halkin, an Israeli novelist, critic and frequent contributor to
Commentary magazine, from whose May, 1998, issue this article is reprinted.

THE JEWISH PEOPLE have always been an aggregate, geographically dispersed and linguistically and culturally diverse. Some parts of it are closer to one another than others; many hold different beliefs, practice different rituals, and are impelled by different social and economic interests. Few are connected to or divided from the rest by the identical things; most aid one another in some areas while competing in others and more or less living and letting live. Since Jews were everywhere a minority without the coercive means of government or established church, it was something they had little choice about. The very notion of what was or who was a Jew was never anything but relative.

So what else, one might ask, is new? The illusion of Jewish unity, it would seem. But is it? Jews in the past had this illusion, too. A Jew in ninth-century Baghdad or 12th-century Cordoba knew the Judaism of Baghdad or of Cordoba; if he thought about Jews elsewhere, he imagined them to be like himself. The occasional traveler may have brought tales of distant and exotic Jews elsewhere, but these were forgotten or transformed into legend, into lost tribes beyond the mountains of darkness. The real Jew was the familiar one.

To be accurate, the sense of Jewish unity in our own time that has not been entirely an illusion. Compared with most, perhaps even all, of the Jewish past, and especially with the first half of this century, the last 50 years have witnessed an unusual degree of solidarity. There has been enough time to get used to this condition and even to come to regard it as normal.


Two things have created it: the Holocaust and the state of Israel. And it is Israel especially that has been the focal point of Jewish unity in our time. But it has also become the foundering point, since while Jewish communities can live peacefully side by side with differing standards of Jewishness, it is impossible to administer a Jewish state without a single standard, and no such criterion can be agreed upon. Nor would it be workable if it could.

Let us suppose for a moment that, by government decision or (as is more likely) court order, Reform and Conservative Judaism were to be fully enfranchised in Israel tomorrow. Assuming that the synagogue-state relationship in Israel remained otherwise unchanged, this would enable non-Orthodox rabbis to perform officially recognized conversions, marriages, and divorces; to serve as chaplains in the armed forces, hospitals, and prisons; to receive a share of government funds for salaries, religious schools, and synagogues; and to participate in the local religious councils that are responsible for channeling and supervising such allocations. Would this be an equitable or convenient solution for all Israelis? For all Jews? For all Gentiles wishing to become Jews?

It would not be. To begin with, the approximately 1 million Orthodox Jews of Israel would no longer be able to rely on official records of Jewishness. They would have to stop automatically thinking of their fellow Israelis as fellow Jews, privately investigate the family trees of prospective marriage partners, and so forth. The social walls between them and other Israelis, already high, would rise higher.


Of course, this might be considered a fair price to pay for rectifying a perceived injustice to non-Orthodox Israeli Jews. But some of these Jews, in the name of justice, might demand to have recourse to civil marriage and divorce as well. The great majority of them, after all, are not only non-Orthodox but non-Conservative and non-Reform. Although some might find a Conservative marriage ceremony or a Reform divorce proceeding less alien or onerous than its Orthodox counterpart, the wholly secular among them would still be forced to undergo an imposed religious ritual in order to mark a change of personal status; in essence they would be no freer of religious coercion than before. And would not secular Jews in the Diaspora be justified in complaining, just as Reform and Conservative Jews do now, that Israel discriminates against their kind?

And what about Gentiles in Israel, such as the large number of non-Jewish immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union, or the even larger number of foreign workers from countries in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe, many of whom might wish to become Jews for non-religious reasons - out of an identification with the Jewish people, perhaps, or simply because they wish to acquire Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return? Are they to be told with a wink that there are now non-Orthodox rabbis who will quickly convert them to Judaism if only they pretend to see the light of Torah? Or will these rabbis be required to adopt more stringent standards and turn such applicants down, as their Orthodox colleagues do?

Consistency would seem to demand that once Israel makes a start toward religious evenhandedness, the road be followed to its ultimate destination in the separation of church and state, as is the practice in the United States and other Western democracies. Let there be religious marriages, divorces and conversions of all types and denominations for those who want them, and civil procedures for those who do not.

But this too turns out to be a non-solution, particularly in regard to the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship in Israel to all Jewish applicants. What civil procedure can there be for declaring a Gentile a Jew? The most one could imagine would be some bureaucratic process at the end of which Jewishness would be acquired like a fishing license.

Well, then, a logical mind might propose, why not do away with the Law of Return, too? Let Israel adopt a policy of origin-blind immigration like America's, which would give Jews no special preference. Let the Jew from New York, the Christian from Ukraine, and the Buddhist from Thailand compete for Israeli citizenship on equal terms.

This would indeed be logical. It would also, so one might think, mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Or would it? After all, if secular Zionism sought from the outset to "normalize" the Jews by remaking them into a people defined by national territory, language, and culture like any other, why is the Tel-Aviv-born-and-raised child of Thai parents who speaks Hebrew as his native language and relates to Israeli culture as his own not a Jew by nationality in the same sense that he would have been an American had he grown up in New York? Because he does not practice Judaism? But neither do many other Israeli Jews; and besides, to be an American one does not have to practice Christianity - or even decorate a Christmas tree.

Because he is not circumcised? That is absurd: what "normal" people can be joined only by having a prepucectomy?

But absurdity is where this whole line of argument, which started with the seemingly rational premise of legal equality for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel, has apparently led us, although there has been nothing illogical about any of the individual points along the way. Little wonder, then, that a long succession of Israeli governments, and not just for reasons of coalition politics, has struggled mightily against doing the seemingly rational thing.


Absurd or not, however, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of native-born, non-Arab, Hebrew-speaking Israelis who are not Jews by halakhic standards is not merely a possibility; it is a near certainty. When it comes to the foreign workers in its midst today, indeed, Israel is currently in the same stage of denial as was Germany about its Gastarbeiter, or France about immigrant labor from Algeria, in the 1960s.

Too struck by the novelty of cheap servants from abroad to grasp the fact of their permanence in the household, most Israelis still believe that when all the dishes are washed, the scaffolds dismantled, and the oranges picked, the last Ghanaian, Romanian and Thai will board an airplane and head home. But all the dishes are never washed, and the Ghanaian or Thai child born this year in Tel Aviv already may be at home. Either he will become relegated there to perpetual second-class status; or Israel really will cease to be a Jewish state; or he will become a Jew - if not by formally converting, then by acculturating like immigrants everywhere and forcing Israeli notions of Jewishness to include him, just as the Algerian has been reshaping the notion of francité and the Turk or the Kurd of Deutschtum.

This will not happen more easily in Israel than in France or Germany. It will be a long and wrenching process. But happen it may. And if it does, it will be in a very real sense the logical culmination of secular Zionism - a culmination toward which a large portion of Israeli reality has been moving for close to a century as the specifically religious element of Jewish identity has become progressively attenuated in it.

Indeed, secular Zionism, which set out to create a Jewish national culture independent of religion, and Reform Judaism, which set out to free Judaism of all ethno-cultural specificity, have curiously converged on this point: for each has theoretically, and in no small measure practically, eliminated not one strand but two from the traditional four of Jewish identity-the second being the biological tie of endogamy. And each is now faced with a massive increment of non-Jews such as the Jewish people has probably not known since its rapid spread around the Mediterranean in the early days of the Roman empire. But the result of this convergence, involving transformations and cultural and intellectual adventures that can only be guessed at, will also be a divergence, since the coefficient of Jewish identity between, say, the child of a Jewish-Protestant intermarriage raised in a Reform home in California and feeling little or no ethnic connectedness to other Jews, and the child of an Israeli-Thai intermarriage raised in a secular home in Tel Aviv and feeling little or no religious connectedness to other Jews, will be low.


The Jews, it might thus seem, are on their way to becoming three peoples. One will be traditionally Orthodox and spread all over the world, with its principal concentrations in Israel and the United States. One will be a new Jewish-Gentile hybrid, situated largely in the United States, in which will flourish, besides more conventional forms of non-Orthodox Judaism, a partly serious and partly zany array of New Age communities, groups, and cults-communal Jews, Buddhist Jews, eco-Jews, femo-Jews, gay Jews, Jesus Jews, neo-hasidic Jews, neo-kabbalistic Jews, pneumatic Jews of all kinds and shapes. And one will consist of secular Israeli Jews, whose already eclectic make-up will absorb the genomes and cultures of Slavs, Thais, Ethiopian Jews, Filipinos, Nigerians, Columbians, Ghanaians and various self-invented or ostensibly lost - and - found Jewish tribes from remoter parts of the world.

The first of these peoples will live in physical proximity to the other two but will not intermarry or interact Jewishly with either. The second and third will be miscible in principle but will rarely come into contact. Without bans or schisms - Jews, we have said, do not go in for them - all three will slowly drift apart like the tectonic plates of continents.

An accurate forecast? Probably not. It again ignores the multivalence of things. There are always enough subtrends (for example, secular Israelis seeking to explore their religious roots); subgroups); and crosscurrents (such as Orthodox Jews, the great commuters of the Jewish world), to gum up the works. The more chaotic the Jewish future becomes - and it is likely to be chaotic in the extreme - the more, so chaos theory tells us, small developments will lead to large surprises.

On the face of it, in any case, as ethno-cultural and religious ties among large sectors of the Jewish world decline, and endogamy ceases to be a defining Jewish characteristic, the slack will have to be taken up by politics. Already in our times politics alone has mobilized the solidarity that exists, bringing together disparate groups of Jews with no common cultural or religious agenda.


But Jewish politics need not only be unifying. It can just as easily be divisive, as was the case up to and even for a short while after World War II, when in Europe and Palestine, and to a lesser extent in the United States, right-wing Zionists, left-wing Zionists, anti-Zionists, Hebraists, Yiddishists, Jewish socialists, Jewish Communists, Jewish liberals, Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and anti-Orthodox Jews were continually at one another's throats. It is hard for Jews today, brought up in a very different atmosphere, to conceive of the passionate hatreds of those years, although thinking about Israel in the period right before and after the Rabin assassination is a help.

The particular intensity of such arguments stemmed from their being en famille - sometimes quite literally, since it was not unusual to find Jewish families in the Poland or Germany of the 1920s or '30s in which every brother and sister argued the case for a different political party or position. And even when the family table was a metaphorical one, it was no less real: the ties of Yiddishkeit binding a Warsaw Communist to a New York Zionist in those years were in most cases strong enough to feel like - ultimately to be - blood ties.

A secular Zionist myself, I plead guilty to the charge of being one such Jew: I honestly look forward to all that added DNA. But there will be a thinning-out. It was Robert Frost, I believe, who wrote that family is what has to take you in when you have nowhere else to go. It is also that to which you never have to explain yourself. Many Jews in the world today - Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and even sometimes, mysteriously enough, converts - still know what this means in terms of their Jewish identity. They know that although it is irrational for a great religion or culture to be also a caste or a tribe, precisely such foolishness - as hilarious or repugnant as this may seem to others to whom Jewish fate seems far from enviable - is what makes them feel like aristocrats among the nations.

In the future, I would guess, Jews will have a great deal of explaining to do to one another. There will be many different kinds of them out there, all peddling their own version of Jewishness, and the family table will be gone. Meeting in distant places, Jews will not ask each other vus makht a Yid, the old Yiddish greeting that means "What is a Jew up to?" and that implies unmistakably that the answer, whatever it is, will be understood. They will ask, "Who are you?" and the answer, "A Jew," will tell them little or nothing at all.

©1998, Commentary magazine