Many Shades of Being Jewish

By Moshe Arens


July 2, 2017

There are Orthodox Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews. There are Conservative and Reform Jews. There are traditional Jews, secular Jews, agnostic Jews and atheist Jews. There are Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist Jews.

Although decades have passed since the Holocaust there is no doubt that the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust included this very same variety of denominations and beliefs. They were all Jews of one kind or another. The Germans did not differentiate between them; they were all destined for death.

Since then the Jewish people have slowly recovered from this almost fatal blow that sought their extermination. Israel welcomes all Jews with open arms, hoping to heal the wound we have sustained and envisioning the unity of the Jewish people. In Israel, this welcome is enshrined in the Law of Return, the law that defines the state’s mission.

In Israel, the haven for all Jews seeking such a haven, one segment of the population – the ultra-Orthodox – is spreading out the welcome mat only to those who are ultra-Orthodox, or who have undergone a conversion to Judaism by a “recognized” ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Israel or abroad. The rest are facing insurmountable difficulties if they want to marry, or if they bring their dead for burial, of if they want to convert in an effort to “regularize” their status. In other words, they are told they are not really welcome.

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union have decided to simply stick to their “irregular” status, while others have decided to leave Israel. This policy of the ultra-Orthodox establishment is dealing a heavy blow to Jewish unity.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders should be reminded that this separatist policy in the years before World War II expressed itself by agitation not to move to Palestine, a move that could have saved their followers. It also prevented the unity of the Jewish community in prewar Poland, leaving the Jews there leaderless during the Holocaust.

One might expect that ultra-Orthodox leaders would learn the lesson of the past and now make their contribution to the unity of the Jewish people. Their insistence on not accepting the compromise reached regarding prayer services at the Western Wall, and opposing any liberalizing of the conversion process, seems to indicate that this lesson has not yet been learned, and the damage they inflict on Jewish unity continues.

Everyone pays lip service to the need for unity among the Jewish people. All well know the tragic results of the absence of such unity — 2,000 years ago in the defense of Jerusalem against the Roman conquerors, and decades ago against the Germans who came to destroy the Warsaw Ghetto. “Unfounded hatred” it is called in Jewish tradition. There is no excuse for that in the State of Israel.

Since the establishment of the state, another division among its Jewish citizens has sprung up: those who take upon themselves the obligation to defend the state and serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and those who refuse to do so. Here too it is the ultra-Orthodox establishment that is responsible for this situation, unique in Israel, where some of its citizens refuse to participate in the defense of the country in which they live.

There are some encouraging signs among ultra-Orthodox rabbis who encourage the drafting of ultra-Orthodox youngsters into the IDF, and among the growing number of such youngsters serving in the IDF today. In contrast, there is the vicious campaign against such enlistment, including attacks against soldiers in uniform by members of the ultra-Orthodox community dead set against this trend.

It is not at all clear that the majority of those who voted for the ultra-Orthodox parties support the intransigence of their representatives in the coalition government who are applying their leverage to veto the Western Wall compromise and prevent the liberalization of conversion to Judaism. Their obstructionist policies may yet lead to their political demise. A little soul-searching is in order.