What Kind of Jewish State? The Formative Decisions at Israel’s Birth

May 2, 2011
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Dov Waxman

Many states are born in the midst of violence and political turmoil, but the circumstances of Israel’s birth were exceptionally tumultuous. In the space of just three years, from 1947 to 1949, the United Nations voted in favor of partitioning Palestine, a brutal civil war broke out between Jews and Palestinians, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees, the British Mandate ended, the establishment of the State of Israel was officially declared, and the new state was attacked by the armies of five of its neighbors. It is little wonder, then, that so many Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora see Israel’s creation as a modern-day miracle, a story of triumph against overwhelming odds. Regardless of the historical accuracy of this view — Israeli revisionist historians have by now debunked the myths of this period — what is generally left out of this dramatic story of Israel’s founding are some critical decisions made at the time by the Jewish leadership that have had major repercussions until today.

Two decisions have been particularly consequential for shaping the kind of state Israel has become: the decision to give the Orthodox chief rabbinate control over personal status issues for all Jews, as well as over the standards for kosher food and Shabbat observance, and other concessions; and the decision to place the state’s Arab minority under military rule. Both of these decisions, the former made in the so-called Status Quo Agreement of 1947 and the latter made in 1948 by the government of the new state, have turned out to be hugely consequential, shaping the nature of the state itself and the relations among its citizens. Decisions driven at the time by short-term expediency have had long-term consequences that have been a source of constant social tension and political conflict.

The Status Quo Agreement that David Ben-Gurion (then the leader of the Jewish Agency in Palestine) reached with the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party sketched out the basic relationship between the future state and the Jewish religion. It promised that the Jewish Sabbath would be the official day of rest; that the state would serve only kosher food in its institutions; and that the Orthodox religious establishment would have exclusive authority over all Jewish marriages, divorces, and burials. This meant that no civil marriages or divorces would be allowed and only individuals considered “Jewish” by Orthodox standards could be buried in Jewish state cemeteries.1 The agreement also granted exemption from military service for yeshiva students (then numbering just a few hundred, now around 80,000-90,000).

Although this agreement has governed religious affairs in Israel over the past 60-plus years, Israel’s rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox population protests any decisions it sees as infringing on the religious status quo and uses its political power to extend control over other issues (such as the recognition of Jewish conversions carried out abroad). Secular Israeli Jews, at the other end of the spectrum, also complain; as they see it, Jewish religious law governs so many aspects of public life in Israel that it amounts to “religious coercion” and an undemocratic limit on their personal freedoms. Thus, rather than resolving the question of Judaism’s status in a Jewish state, the Status Quo Agreement has made it into a perennial and polarizing political issue. It has helped fuel religious-secular tensions, not ease them.

Even more divisive in the long run was the decision to impose a military government over Arab-inhabited areas of the country (the legal basis for this was the Emergency Defense Regulations initially imposed by the British Mandate Authorities and subsequently adopted, and maintained to this day, by the Israeli state). The military government, which lasted from 1948 to 1966, essentially gave the state total control over all aspects of Arab life. Unlike Jewish citizens of the state, the vast majority of Israel’s Arab citizens effectively lived under an authoritarian regime that severely restricted many aspects of their daily lives (such as their ability to travel out of their towns and villages and to establish businesses). While the official rationale for martial law was the potential security threat that Arabs posed to the state, it also enabled the state to monitor and control the political activities of the Arab minority and to expropriate much of its land.

Justified or not, the military government had a profound impact on the relations between the state and the Arab minority and between Jewish and Arab citizens. Instead of trying to integrate Arabs into Israeli society and demonstrate to them that they would be treated fairly and equally by a Jewish state, the state looked upon and dealt with the Arab minority primarily as a security threat, real or potential. Little has really changed since then in terms of how the Israeli state views its Arab citizens. Much of the Arab minority, in turn, has regarded the state not as its own, but as an alien and hostile entity, one that is fundamentally geared toward serving Jewish interests only. For Israel’s Jewish majority, the military government had far-reaching psychological consequences. It clearly marked the Arab minority as a hostile population not to be trusted, and by keeping the two populations apart, it increased the social distance between them, a distance that remains very wide to this day. In this respect, although it ended more than four decades ago, the military government is at least partly responsible for the negative relationship that continues to prevail between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Two separate decisions around the time of Israel’s birth, each made under great pressure and addressing immediate challenges, have resulted in unforeseen consequences for the country and its people. Were it not for these decisions, Israel may have become a very different kind of state: one where different streams of Judaism flourished, where secular Jews were free to marry whomever they loved, where Jewish converts did not have to satisfy ultra-Orthodox rabbis, where non-Jews could be buried beside their Jewish partners, and where Haredi Jews had the same obligations as non-Haredi Jews. It could even have become a country where Israeli citizens, of whatever ethnicity or faith, were truly equal, where Jews and Arabs regarded each other as fellow citizens first and foremost rather than as national rivals, and where Arabs felt a greater sense of belonging. That such possibilities seem today almost utopian only goes to show how much the Israeli reality departs from this vision.

It is of course easy with the benefit of hindsight to cast a critical light on difficult decisions made under difficult circumstances. I am not trying to blame Israel’s early leaders — Ben-Gurion, foremost among them — for these decisions. Instead, by emphasizing the long-term impact that two key decisions have had upon Israel’s development, my aim is to point out how a different kind of Jewish state could have been created. Today, more than 60 years later, such a state is still possible. It requires now, as it did then, different decisions to be made — to fully integrate Israel’s Arab citizens politically, economically, and socially, and to end the Orthodox rabbinate’s monopoly over marriages and conversions. These are politically difficult decisions to be sure, but ones that can, and for the future of the country, must be made.

1 See Daniel Gordis, Yehiel Poupko, and Mark Washofsky essays in Sh’ma, March 2011

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Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the co-author, with Ilan Peleg, of the forthcoming book Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press).

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