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Israel Needs a Separation Wall

We have long since become accustomed to the Israeli Haredi community’s version of roadside bombs. They come, they go, damaging Judaism’s dignity with their excesses, but inflicting no human casualties. Last week’s over-the-top outburst by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of the Shas party’s Council of Torah Sages, was the sort of derangement we have come to expect of him: He described Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians as “our enemies and haters… May they vanish from the world, may God smite them with the plague, them and the Palestinians, evil-doers and Israel-haters.”

There followed a mild reproof from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office: “These words do not reflect the approach of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, nor the position of the government of Israel.” After all, Shas is part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition; better not to rock the boat. Appropriate denunciation of the incitement was left mostly to Palestinians.

The truth is , ugly though this sort of thing is, it is no more than a lesion on the body politic. The underlying tumor, the one that truly threatens and goes well beyond Haredi misbehavior, is the marriage of religion and state, a marriage that corrupts both sides.

There are, to be sure, ongoing arguments over conversion, over civil marriage, over the Haredi community’s work ethic and views on gender, and there is also the campaign for more equitable subsidies for Conservative and Reform synagogues. But all these miss the fundamental point.

The fundamental point: The government of Israel has no good reason to be as involved as it is — politically, financially, legally — in the world of the synagogue, whether Haredi or any other stream. Nor is it helpful to the observant community itself to wield, as it does, secular power. It is time to think the unthinkable, to consider seriously an end to the corrupting intimacy between synagogue and state. This would be so even if Yosef and his kindred sages were all truly wise, benevolent, even if they loved mercy, pursued justice and walked modestly with their God. It would be so even if the state were able to muster the courage to put an end to the very separate Haredi school system it subsidizes, a system that does not teach the national core curriculum and is barely if at all supervised by state authorities. Indeed, it would be so even if there were a sudden mass shift to Reform and Conservative Judaism from Orthodox Judaism.

The current system, with its vastly preferential treatment of Orthodoxy in general and Haredim in particular, is a relatively easy target. Its most brutal cost is the shattering alienation of tens of thousands of secular Israelis from any relationship at all to a Jewish religious tradition that is evidently owned by others. Their reaction is entirely understandable; the current arrangement is a scandal.

The more difficult target is the necessary decoupling of state and synagogue. That should be an easy sell; after all, it means religious freedom. But the truth is that in Israel, the needed divorce comes with enormous complications, the very first of which is that it requires some sort of agreement on the vexing question of who, exactly, is a Jew.

Why is that a problem? The Law of Return, Israel’s basic organizing principle, is of, by and for Jews. Its current version, which accepts conversions from anywhere in the world except Israel itself, has been a source of great controversy over the years. Israel’s high court may soon render the controversy moot, but until that happens, renewed battles over who is “officially” Jewish will continue, even intensify.

Yet to an Israeli-Jewish public that is overwhelmingly convinced that Israel is, indeed, “a people that dwells alone,” abandonment of the Law of Return is a nonstarter; it invalidates Israel’s raison d’être.

What, then, to do? More than 10 years ago, Yossi Beilin, the former leader of the Meretz party, one-time minister of justice as well as foreign minister, proposed an end to the exclusive authority of the rabbinate over conversion. Why, he asked, “is someone like me allowed to be an agnostic Jew while a convert to Judaism is not? Why must a non-Jewish atheist or agnostic go to a rabbi in order to become a Jewish atheist or agnostic?” He proposed the creation of a secular conversion process, available to any non-Jew of honorable intent who seeks to become part of the Jewish people.

Once conversion becomes a legal question on which the state is required to take a position, as is the case today, the trouble starts. One way or another — and Beilin’s bold proposal is not the only available fix — let religion belong to the society, not to the state.

Many Orthodox Jews contend that if there is no uniform standard for conversion, their children will not be able to marry Jews whose Jewish pedigree can be questioned. That is, to be sure, a problem — but the solution to that problem cannot be to cede ultimate power over Jewish authenticity to any one faction of Jews, much less to the realm of politics.

These are admittedly weighty issues, deserving extended exploration. My own view is that Judaism is fully able to compete for the loyalty of the Jews on a flat playing field. It is not an accident that America, with its relatively strict separation of church and state, is also, and by far, the most pious of the Western nations. Israelis deserve, and Judaism deserves, the same kind of religious freedom, the same strict separation.

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