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In 2018, the Knesset passed a bill defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Critics of the law, both in Israel and abroad, condemned it as a racist act that denied national rights to non-Jewish Israelis and downgraded the official status of Arabic. Adding a line guaranteeing the equality and civil rights of all Israelis would not have weakened the law but, even without such a reference, it could not be called racist. It was, rather, a tautological law reiterating the obvious. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, a country which grants the right of self-determination solely to Jews. Together with the great number of laws establishing Israel as a democracy, the nation-state law filled a lacuna by reaffirming Israel’s Jewish identity as well.
No, the main fault of the law was not its contents but rather Israel’s failure to live up to them. The same state that defines itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people not only in Israel but worldwide does not recognize the legitimacy of the Judaism practiced by the majority of American Jews. The absurdity—indeed, the obscenity—of the situation was underscored by the aftermath of the massacre of Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, which took place six months after the bill’s passage. While expressing solidarity with the victims, several Israeli ministers and Chief Rabbinate refused to call the Tree of Life a synagogue. The place where Jews were killed while praying as Jews had, in the words of the Jewish nation-state, merely “a profound Jewish flavor.”
The affront was compounded by ingratitude. Contributions and investments from Diaspora Jews account for some 6.5% of Israel’s annual GDP—roughly equivalent to its defense budget—and have contributed massively to building Israel’s educational, medical, cultural, and financial infrastructure. The names of Diaspora, and especially American, philanthropists adorn everything from schools to hospitals and ambulances in Israel to the recreational facilities on IDF bases. There are 34 Jewish Members of Congress—the Senate has a minyan—almost all of whom support Israel energetically though none are Orthodox. American Jews are a vital component in the U.S-Israel alliance.
Why, then, would Israel risk weakening those bonds? Why, with scarcely more Jews in the world today than there were before the Holocaust and increasingly numbers of them assimilating, would the Jewish nation-state alienate itself from so many? The situation is strategically dangerous and morally wrong.
Israel in 2048 must have a radically different relationship with World Jewry. It must redefine Jewish identity in national terms, emphasizing peoplehood over observance. Those who define themselves as members of our people and recognize Israel as our legitimate nation-state must be embraced by Israel as Jews. Israel, in turn, must recognize the legitimacy of the mainstream Jewish movements and those they convert. It must institute an independent conversion process, open to both Israeli and Diaspora Jews that includes Jewish studies but which stresses national identity. Israel must cease regarding Diaspora Jewish life as fundamentally illegitimate—shlilat ha-golah—just as the Diaspora must recognize Israel as a primary vehicle for Jewish continuity.
With that, Israel must embark on a mission to save the maximum number of Jews from assimilation. A national campaign must be mounted to bring 10,000 young, secular Jews from the Diaspora to Israel each year, to provide them with stipends, jobs, and other incentives and enable them to settle permanently. Eligibility for the program will be determined by answering two basic questions, the first positively and the second in the negative. Is the candidate Jewish and is he or she likely to have Jewish grandchildren?
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