Netanel Fisher & Avi Shilon. Middle Eastern Studies. Volume 53, Issue 2. 2017.
The character and values of communities and countries are reflected in the way they define their boundaries and by the means they provide for those who wish to join them. Thus, immigration policy based on primordial ethnic affinities points to a society which anchors its collective identity in the past, while a state with joining rules based on individual civic requirements reflects a more open and inclusive concept of nationalism. The immigration and naturalization policy of each state is determined at the time of its inception, and the definition of these boundaries infuses practical content into its vision. However, both the vision and its content may undergo modifications depending on historical circumstances.
For example, US immigration policy, adopted after the Second World War, was based on neutral criteria of immigrant admission reflecting the fact that it is a country of immigrants whose civic identity lies on individual-liberal foundations. Similarly, at the beginning of the 2000s, Germany integrated civic principles into its ethnic naturalization laws to facilitate veteran immigrants’ assimilation and naturalization. On the other hand, the ethnic citizenship laws in the Baltic states, which emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union, endowing citizenship to descendants of nationals despite years of their living abroad, reflect the importance of ethno-historical foundations of national identity from these countries’ perspective.
In this article, we intend to focus on the Israeli case and explain the link between its immigration and naturalization policy and its collective self-perception. We argue that Israel’s policy was designed at the time of the state’s establishment by David Ben Gurion, in an attempt to construct a national Jewish identity based on a creative interpretation of religious tradition, oriented also towards building a modern inclusive Jewish nation.
In Israel, as in some other countries, changes in immigration policy have been made. However, in our view, in the Israeli case, these changes have not replaced the basic principles originally set by Ben Gurion; rather, they have actually confirmed the continued commitment to these fundamental principles.
Israel’s Immigration Dilemma
On the eve of its inception, the founders of the state of Israel had to reach a decision regarding its national identity: would it be a civic republic or an ethnic Jewish nation-state? If it would be an ethnic Jewish nation-state, how would the nation be defined and how, if at all, could one—Arab or other non-Jew—join it? Would this be determined by secular criteria of origin and identification, or rather, in light of the centrality of religion in Jewish history, influenced by the rules set out by the Jewish laws?
These fundamental questions turned into political issues when it became necessary to formulate immigration, citizenship and civic registration policies. In a deeper sense, these fundamental rulings reflected the way in which Israeli policy-makers sought to form its national identity and to bridge the historic rift created by Zionism in Jewish history. Like other national movements, Zionism had to decide how it could present itself as an authentic expression of the nation’s historical identity, while, on the other hand, not denying the fact that it was a secular and modern phenomenon, which largely detached itself from the past or reinvented it.
These issues are discussed extensively in research literature; but the present article seeks to focus on the decisive moment of its establishment, demonstrating mutual influences between nation building and the construction of its outside and inside borders. We claim that David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the state of Israel, had a crucial role in this initiative as he formulated Israel’s immigration policy out of a unique Zionistic worldview, aiming to design a new collective identity at a unique historic moment.
Based on archive materials, some of which is being exposed here for the first time, we argue that during the 1950s, Ben Gurion led the government to make several crucial decisions which had a decisive impact on Israel’s Jewish, democratic and secular character, preserving a positive albeit complex connection to its religious tradition. Moreover, although the discussion in this article is mainly historical, and major changes have occurred since the 1950s, we claim that Ben Gurion’s fundamental principles have remained in effect until the present day.
We shall begin with a concise presentation of the various approaches that had come to prevail during the pre-state era as to the Jewish nation’s boundaries. Indeed, the voluntary nature of Zionism, as well as its being a minority movement within the Jewish people, had made the question generally less relevant at the time; however, these approaches laid the foundations for later controversies that broke out after the establishment of the state. Following this discussion, we will provide a detailed description of the historical sequence of Ben Gurion’s decisions, concluding with an analysis of his general contribution to the formation of the boundaries of Jewish nationality in Israel, which is basically still valid.
The Pre-State Debate Over National Belonging
Two basic models are customarily presented in the classical study of nationality: ethnic nationality and civic nationality. According to this classical division, ethnic nationality, originating in Eastern Europe, is based on shared origin and historical culture, while civic nationality, attributed mainly to Western Europe, is based on liberal humanistic principles of civic equality. This dogmatic classification, as well as its accompanying normative assumptions, has indeed lost potency over the years, but is still used as a typological starting point for classifying types of nationalities and democracies. In recent decades, and in light of the global rise of religion, a third model has developed, that of religious nationality, where religious law and tradition play an important role in shaping national content and borders.
In the Jewish national context, this basic typology proves useful in classifying various optional Jewish national models, partly because Zionist attitudes should also be understood against the geo-cultural background on which they were formed.
The founder of the Zionist movement, Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, was seen to represent the civic-liberal approach, which was formed in Western-Central Europe and considered the Jewish state to be the place for realizing the ideals of civic equality regardless of differences in religious and ethnic origin. As a result of this approach, Herzl advocated his vision of the Jewish state as endowing full membership and equality to non-Jewish citizens, including mixed-marriage families and their offspring. Herzl expressed this stance in a letter he wrote to his friend Max Nordau, who was later to become one of the Zionist movement’s leaders, but who was initially wary of joining it due to the fact that he was married to a non-Jewish woman:
Your worries as to the attitudes of our zealots’ circles to mixed marriages might be overestimated.… Had our enterprise already been realized now, it would not be possible to forbid a Jewish citizen, meaning a citizen of the existing Jewish state, to marry a woman from abroad. If they have children, they will be Jewish in any case… By the way, this can be proven by a good example. If I am not mistaken, Moses married a Midianite woman.
However, contrary to this liberal position, Herzl rejected the Christened Jew Morris de Jonge’s request to be accepted into the Zionist movement on the grounds that ‘adherence to Judaism was a prerequisite of membership’. This position, as well as other utterances by Herzl, such as his vision of rebuilding of the ancient Temple in the heart of renewed Jerusalem, made scholars wonder if he did actually advocate a civic nation which would separate between religion, ethnicity and nationality, or if, on the contrary, he assigned the Jewish religion a central role in the public sphere and in forming the national identity.
In contrast to Herzl’s liberal approach, the Jewish national–ethnic approach originated in Eastern Europe and based national belonging on Jewish ethnicity. The ethnic emphasis enabled the advocates of this approach, which prevailed in the main wings of the Israeli labor movement during the period preceding the establishment of the state of Israel, to disengage themselves from the religious tradition and to develop an oppositional approach toward it and toward the Diaspora’s culture which it represented.
One prominent representative of this religious-confronting approach was author Yosef Haim Brenner, whose essay from 1910 referring favourably to the inclusion of Jews in the Jewish fold, irrespective of their beliefs, including adherence to the Christian faith, had sparked a large-scale public debate that came to be known as ‘the Brenner incident’. To Brenner’s mind, Jewish national identity is based on ethnic affinity and subjective identification with the Jewish people, and therefore religious affiliation with Judaism or with any other religion has no weight in setting the boundaries of the modern nation.
It is important to stress that the ethnic-confrontational approach did not aspire to separate itself from the Jewish people and its culture, nor did it perceive itself as forming a new modern nation. However, since the 1940s, a small group named the Canaanites indeed went one step further, seeking to create a new alternative identity, which would include additional groups from the Middle East. According to the Canaanite view, the connection between nationality and Jewish history, including religion, should be completely severed, resulting in separation between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
On the other hand, there was national religious Zionism. As opposed to their orthodox anti-Zionist counterparts who considered the national idea to be a secular-modern deviation from the Jewish religious heritage, the religious Zionists found various ways to fit Judaism into the Zionist movement. This was in some cases to the religious Zionists’ understanding of Zionism as a movement exclusively concerned with physical rescue, or, in other cases, to their envisioning its potential for encompassing a religious messianic revolution despite its having begun through the leadership of non-religious Jews. However, as a rule, even the religious Zionists agreed with their non-Zionist coreligionists that the boundaries of the Jewish collective are subject to the rules of religion, since without them Zionism would lose its basic legitimacy as a movement representing the Jewish people and heritage.
In certain ways, the Canaanite movement paralleled religious ultra-Zionism: both rejected Zionism, though while the ultra-orthodox avoided Zionism in order to preserve traditional Jewish continuity, the Canaanites rejected Zionism and Judaism in favour of a new collective identity based on common territory and culture. The Canaanites were not part of the Zionist movement. However, at a later period, especially from the 1990s onward, their civic-national model would become an influential idea in post-Zionist circles.
In between the religious approach and the liberal and ethnic-confrontational ones, there existed the conservative-organic approach of Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsburg). Ahad Ha’am’s national perception was indeed secular–ethnic and modern, but he strived to incorporate the Jewish tradition into it harmoniously. His basic commitment to the Jewish ethos created over thousands of years of Jewish culture can be seen, for instance, in his having led the struggle against Brenner’s intention to include Jews who adopted Christian beliefs in the Jewish nation. His opposition to marriage between Jews and non-Jews was also reflected in his own private life, by his rejection of his own daughter following her marriage to a non-Jew, although the latter ultimately underwent reform conversion to Judaism. He considered this event to be a personal tragedy, and a sign that he was no longer worthy of publishing his teachings.
At this pre-state point, then, there arose a variety of possible ways to define Jewish national identity, from absolute adherence to religious definitions and all the way to ideas concerning the establishment of an entirely new civic–secular–territorial nationality. However, until the establishment of the state, the practical implications of this debate were negligible; they became practical and the subject of fierce political debate only as of 1948.
Israel as a Jewish State
Once Israel was declared a Jewish state, the options of establishing it either as a state of all its citizens (an ‘Israeli’ state) or as a bi-national state seemed to be out of the question. Israel became a Jewish nation-state, differentiating between Israeli citizenship, shared equally by all its members, and Jewish nationhood which was identified with the Jewish people in Israel and abroad. Thus, Israel adopted an Eastern-European repatriation model, endowing preference, if not exclusivity, to Jewish immigration; however, at this early stage, the boundaries of Jewish nationhood were still quite vague.
The unclear delimitations of national belonging were reflected in a discussion which took place in the Provisional State Council in February 1949 regarding the rules of the Population Registry. The discussion’s point of departure was the assumption that there is no ‘Israeli’ nationality, and it was determined that every citizen’s national and religious affiliation be registered in his/her ID card as well as in the population census. However, Interior Minister Yitzhak Greenbaum, known for his secular outlook, announced that flexibility would be exercised in registry definitions. When asked about the registration of citizens’ religious affiliation, he announced that this had no significance beyond its serving to satisfy the needs of religious citizens, and that therefore it would be based on a subjective statement: ‘We are speaking of people who will come in person and say what their religion is… and if they say they do not belong to any religious framework, they will be registered without religion’. Greenbaum extended this principle of self-definition to national registration as well: ‘If one thinks he is unaffiliated nationality-wise—we will write ‘no nation’ … and no danger will result from this, not to the people nor to religion nor to the state’. Greenbaum’s words clearly indicate that at the time, the Ministry of the Interior generally avoided any formal rules, so that each individual was free to make his/her own decision in terms of self-definition of religious and national identity.
Mixed Families: Can Non-Jews Join the Jewish Nation?
The idea of defining Jewish identity subjectively, which seemed so obvious to Greenbaum, contradicted the religious approach led by Immigration Minister Moshe Shapira, leader of the religious party Hapo’el Hamizrahi. In a closed meeting of the Immigration Committee of the Provisional State Council (5 November 1948), Shapira presented his immigration policy, which was accepted by most committee members, objecting to the immigration of non-Jews and determining that in case the immigration of non-Jews would be approved, they would have to convert:
In the case of gentiles who hold special rights as a result of saving Jews from destruction in Europe, immigration officers must forward applications for immigration to the Immigration Ministry for approval, and the gentile must convert to Judaism.
This religion-based policy angered Justice Minister Pinchas Rosen and Foreign Ministry officials who demanded that the government hold a discussion on it, following which two government meetings were indeed devoted to the subject. At that point, most of the ministers opposed limiting non-Jews’ immigration and its conditioning on conversion, on the grounds that such limitations might hurt Israel’s reputation and limit potential immigration, which according to their assessments was going to include many mixed families. Beyond these pragmatic considerations, a significant number of ministers opposed Shapira’s policies due to ideological disagreement with his religious position. In their view, even if assimilation in the Diaspora should be denounced, whoever tied his/her fate with that of the Jewish people by marriage and wishes to immigrate to Israel should be considered a Jew in all respects. Leading this argument was Prime Minister Ben Gurion: ‘If the family goes to Israel, there is a Jewish environment and the children will be Jewish children, and I do not care if the father or mother originated in another race’. This was an expression of Ben Gurion’s worldview which will soon be described in detail, according to which the immigration and assimilation of non-Jews into the Israeli Jewish collectivity is a blessing, and does not have to follow the religious blueprint, but rather national–civic criteria, based on residence in shared territory and subjective identification with the Jewish nation and the state of Israel.
However, despite the ministers’ opposition to Shapira’s policies, the government preferred to preserve ambiguity, and avoided making an explicit public decision on the matter. Similarly, two years later, with the enactment of the Law of Return, which stated that ‘every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel’—the government decided to refrain from defining the term Jew and did not establish formal policies for mixed families’ immigration. These moves were an expression of Ben Gurion’s fundamental political preference to refrain from clear decisions on controversial ideological issues, primarily those relating to religion and state.
This discussion did not pertain to the Palestinians, in regard to whom it was stated succinctly that Israeli citizenship is given also to persons who were Israeli resident right before the establishment of the state, however, ‘one looks in vain, however, for any intensive discussion, let alone awareness, of this discriminatory (with regard to the Palestinians) aspect of the Law of Return’. The assumptions that Israel is being established as a Jewish-ethnic state and not as a civil-Israeli one, and that a Palestinian is most unlikely to wish to belong to the Jewish nation, precluded such a discussion.
However, contrary to the Palestinians, the practical policy towards non-Jews who have tied their fate with that of the Jews was clear: non-Jewish family members were allowed to immigrate to Israel and become citizens. In fact, we know of no restrictions imposed on the immigration of mixed families during the 1950s, and as we shall see later on, many of them immigrated to Israel during this decade. However, how were these family members defined? Could they or their offspring be registered as Jews? These questions were at the heart of the 1958 ‘Who is a Jew’ crisis.
The 1958 ‘Who is a Jew’ Crisis: Can Non-Jews Be Recognized as Jews?
In 1957, many mixed families immigrated to Israel from Poland. The high prominence and proportion of non-Jews in this group created many social problems, such as discrimination against non-Jewish spouses which received extensive media coverage and sparked concern among Israeli authorities, who feared that this would negatively influence future immigration from Poland and Eastern European countries. At the same time, it also came to be known that contrary to the subjective registration policy declared by Greenbaum at the beginning of that decade, his successor at the Interior Ministry, Moshe Shapira, actually refused to register children as Jews if only their fathers were Jewish. Due to these problems, the new Minister of the Interior, Israel Bar Yehuda, in close cooperation with Attorney General Haim Cohen, both known for their secular attitudes, had set new registration guidelines. These detailed guidelines stated that if both parents declare that their child is Jewish, the child will be registered as such even when ‘one of the parents is not Jewish and declares so’. It was stressed that these are secular civic registration guidelines, and that ‘there is no escaping the resulting fact that sometimes religious ruling differs in content and nature from the secular one’. Although the guidelines pertained to civil registration, they were apparently perceived as relevant to the issue of immigration to Israel as well. This perception was reflected in Ben Gurion’s instructions at a government meeting: ‘If a tourist will come and say that he is Jewish and wants to stay in the country, he has every right to stay and will immediately become an Israeli citizen’.
Following the publication of the new guidelines, the National Religious Party (NRP) demanded their immediate cancellation. They clung to the religious approach stating that national identity is to be determined according to religious criteria, and regarded the registration of Jews against halachic (Jewish religious law) rules as breaking Jewish historical continuity. When it turned out, to their dismay, that ministers led by Ben Gurion were in favour of the secular guidelines, the NRP left the government coalition. This time, Ben Gurion was determined not to give in to the religious parties, although he himself warned of the danger of a ‘religious war’ which ‘could shatter the country… (and) the nation to pieces’.
Why did Ben Gurion deviate from his usual conciliatory policy and seek to confront his religious counterparts? It is our claim that two main concerns guided him in his decision to enter this conflict: first, to reaffirm the democratic principle of the sovereignty of the people, and second, to guarantee that Jewish national identity is not subject to religion in its rabbinical–halachic interpretation. Since he considered these two dimensions to be significant for Israel’s future as a modern Jewish nation-state, he was determined to fight for them.
Ben Gurion’s Democratic and Jewish Ideologies
Ben Gurion consistently reiterated that his opposition to the religious parties’ demands does not stem from animosity towards religion, but rather from his commitment to the democratic–republican principle of the people’s sovereignty. According to him:
The argument between us and them is, as I see it: if the rabbis will rule or rather the people… rule of halacha or rule of the law… We said no to the rule of rabbis and asserted this in the Declaration of Independence, we set it in all the guidelines—no religious coercion. What is religious coercion—the rule of the rabbis. This was the argument, this is why people resigned. I am not overjoyed that they left, but I am still not willing to accept the rabbis’ rule.
Ben Gurion emphasized that the state does not intervene in religious matters, and is responsible for fully satisfying its citizens’ religious needs. At the same time, he also repeatedly emphasized that the nature of the state of Israel is that of a liberal democracy, often violating religious decrees. According to Ben Gurion, even cases where the monopoly has been granted to religion, such as laws of marriage and divorce, are still legally based on the republican concept of the people’s sovereignty over religion.
However, Ben Gurion did not content himself with democratic–republican arguments alone; the most important aspect in his stance was that he considered Zionism, and not religion in its halachic manifestation, to be the most authentic contemporary interpretation of Judaism. According to this outlook, Zionism constitutes an alternative to the rabbinical concept of joining the Jewish people, which was exile-related and no longer relevant, since for the first time in thousands of years, a solid Jewish majority came to dwell in the Land of Israel:
Here we are not a minority under pressure of a foreign culture, and there is no fear of assimilation of Jews among non-Jews. While abroad mixed marriages are one of the decisive factors in the total assimilation and in the abandonment of Judaism, the mixed marriages arriving here, especially from Eastern Europe, actually fuse completely with the Jewish people.
To strengthen his position and challenge his rivals, Ben Gurion quoted in the Knesset Herzl’s aforesaid letter to Nordau regarding the acceptance of intermarriage, and concluded sarcastically: ‘Neither I nor anyone else must accept Herzl’s opinion, but Herzl was not rejected by the Mizrahi and they elected him as President of the Zionist movement’.
In a certain sense, this assertion seems to testify to Ben Gurion’s adoption of Brenner’s and Berdichevsky’s radical confrontational approach, which posited that the return to the Land of Israel allows for a disengagement from the rules of tradition; thus, becoming Jewish may be accomplished through socio-cultural assimilation into the Jewish majority. However, Ben Gurion’s position was more complex. Unlike Berdichevsky and Brenner, he did not wish to break away from Jewish tradition entirely, but rather to nationalize it. He sought to disengage from the religious rabbinic-exile-related tradition, and establish a renewed interpretation of Judaism based on alternative religious sources, primarily the Bible, which he felt was an authentic Jewish source containing liberal and universal elements that facilitate the establishment of a more flexible and open nationality.
Liebman and Don-Yehiya define Ben Gurion’s approach as ‘statism’ (Mamlachtiyut), adopted by him in the early 1950s to replace the confrontational approach which was dominant prior to the establishment of the state. This ‘statism’ referred to an outlook considering the state and its institutions to be the central focus of collective values and commitment, though its symbols drew their contents, selectively and after being emptied of their divine meaning, from religious tradition.
We interpret Ben Gurion’s attitude differently. Contrary to Brenner, Ben Gurion’s nationalism was not based on separating religion from national identity nor on ‘secularizing’ or ‘nationalizing’ Judaism; rather, it would be more accurate to say that he interpreted the Bible in a way that supported re-establishment of an authentic Jewish nationhood as he perceived it. As with criticism of the secularization thesis in recent years, Ben Gurion’s attitude asserted that modernization does not necessarily imply the existence of a dichotomy between secularism and religion, but rather signifies that ‘the two are inextricably linked, and the ideologies and practices of both are a hybrid nature’.
This perception of Zionism as the authentic embodiment of Judaism led him to consider rabbis as no less than distorters of the Jewish tradition: ‘I do not accept that they are speaking in the name of the Jewish religion. They invented their own religion, focusing mainly on Shabbat and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws)’. Accordingly, he claimed that the religious criteria for conversion were appropriate for the period of exile, but with the Jewish nation having returned to its land, ‘national conversion’ and ‘Judaization’ based on the biblical model seemed the best Jewish option. Ben Gurion’s strategy of coping with the religious demand to condition registration as a Jew on conversion to Judaism demonstrates how this approach was actually carried out.
Joining the People of Israel: Judaization as an Alternative to Conversion
During negotiations to resolve the ‘Who is a Jew’ crisis, the religious MKs repeated their demand that registration as a Jew be conditional upon conversion to Judaism, while promising—behind the scenes—that a quick and easy solution would be found for anyone wishing to convert: ‘Every child will be converted, even if his mother is Christian’. This pragmatic proposal, actually aiming to establish a quasi-state conversion authority, may have solved the political problem, but it was rejected outright by Ben Gurion.
Ben Gurion rejected this political compromise for two reasons. First, he feared that granting authority to rabbis to define Judaism may result in their questioning the Jewishness of secular Israelis in the future: ‘Tomorrow a rabbi or rabbis will get up and say that we are not Jews, as Neturei Karta (an extreme ultra-orthodox group) does’. Second, he claimed that halachic criteria lack the legitimacy to define national identity in Israel. ‘For the rabbi’, said Ben Gurion, ‘if a Jew is not sure who his mother was, or exactly how she was married, even if he fought for the country, spilled his blood for it, and educates his children as Jews—for the rabbis this is not enough. A woman will become a Jew only if she immerses herself in a mikveh (ritual bath)’. We, emphasized Ben Gurion defiantly, ‘do not think this is important, if she will or will not immerse herself in a mikveh’.
Ben Gurion confronted the halachic criterion by establishing an alternative to it, namely, employing the biblical model as the religious-modern criterion for joining the Jewish people:
I have not found any citation of Moses in the Torah saying that one must not marry a Midianite or a Black, which he did himself, and he married in Midian, and I doubt that there were three rabbis there in front of whom Zipporah converted, and still Moses’ sons were Jews.
By employing the biblical joining-model in a secular-modern interpretation, Ben Gurion was ahead of his time. In a way we can depict him as the first to have suggested what later came to be known in the literature as ‘sociological conversion’—a particularly significant expression coined in the context of the absorption of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants into the Jewish collective in the 1990s. In Ben Gurion’s eyes, just as in biblical times, those joining the Jewish people were called ‘Judaizers’ and were not required to undergo a religious ritual, so too joining the Jewish people in its sovereign land should not necessitate conversion: ‘I do not use the word conversion. I will use the biblical word—Judaization (Hityahadut)… The Bible only speaks of Judaizers (Mityahadim). Did they go to the mikveh? No. They Judaized’.
From this we can understand that, contrary to Brenner, Ben Gurion’s secularism was not based on separating religion from national identity, but rather on adopting an alternative religious model, namely the biblical one, which served both as a bridge to the past and as a foundation for modern-inclusive Judaism.
Ben Gurion’s reliance on the Bible expressed his deep faith that the Zionist enterprise, and not rabbinic Judaism, constitutes the most authentic interpretation of Jewish existence and core values. Thus, he stated, ‘nowhere in the world is there such deeply-rooted, true, meaningful and original Judaism as in Israel’. Accordingly, the religious rules which set the criteria for conversion were appropriate for the period of exile, but with the Jewish nation having returned to its country, ‘national conversion’ based on the biblical model seemed the best Jewish option.
Does a Jew Who Converted to Another Religion Still belong to the Jewish Nation?
Ben Gurion’s complex relationship with the religious tradition is clearly reflected in the fact that despite his opposition to identifying Jewish nationality with religion—‘I do not accept that Judaism and religion are one’—he opposed their total detachment and preferred to establish a different kind of religious principles, based on his own interpretation of the biblical era. Contrary to liberal and ethnic perceptions of nationality which do not object to including members of various religions in the nation, Ben Gurion vehemently objected to accepting Christians into the Jewish nation. Thus, it was Ben Gurion’s initiative (and not that of the Supreme Court, as many mistakenly think) which instructed the government ruling that a Christened Jew not be recognized as a Jew for immigration and registration purposes.
Ironically, it should be noted that even in this context, where Ben Gurion accepted religion as a key factor in determining Jewish identity, his position actually contradicted the traditional-halachic rule, as minister Shapira expressed it by asserting that ‘even if a Jew converts to Christianity—he remains a Jew’.
Ben Gurion’s approach was unique in comparison with the secular confrontational approach, according to which nationality was completely released from any religious context. Indeed, this secular approach won the support of ministers such as Minister Mordechai Bentov (Mapam, the leftist socialist party), who claimed: ‘I do not accept the Prime Minister’s approach that whoever is Christian by religion is not Jewish. Even if one declares that he is Catholic—he can still be a Jew’.
However, despite these opposing voices, the government adopted Ben Gurion’s proposal, adding to registration regulations that ‘whoever declares in good faith that he is a Jew, and not a member of any other religion’ will be considered Jewish.
The use of a religious criterion to indicate national affiliation, along with the rejection of Jewish law itself, reflected Ben Gurion’s complex position as to the meaning of Judaism in the state of Israel: ‘If he is a Christian—he is not Jewish. The Jewish nation is just that sort of strange nation; whoever has become a Christian—does not belong in it’.
By rejecting civic and confrontational models downplaying the connection between Zionism and Jewish history, Ben Gurion partially adopted Ahad Ha’am’s conservative-organic model; like the latter, he too denied the Jewishness of those who converted out of Judaism, but unlike him, he welcomed mixed families with open arms. This ideological approach provided Zionism with an advantage over its religious rivals. In the era of relative cultural vacuum that followed the establishment of the state, Ben Gurion’s Zionist biblical spirit was a major contribution to strengthening Zionist self-assurance, as the representative of authentic Judaism.
Jewish, Israeli or Non-Arab Nation?
During the 1958 political crisis, a proposal was made to avoid reaching a conclusive decision on the question of ‘Who is a Jew’, namely to omit indications of nationality and religion from ID cards, thus ending the political crisis. However, Ben Gurion strongly opposed this proposal, and his reasoning was twofold. In a public letter, he based his rejection of the aforementioned proposal on the security need to differentiate between citizens according to their national affiliation. Yet, behind the scenes, in cabinet meetings, he voiced a completely different reason: ‘I am against not registering Jewish nationality for even one moment. I do not want to stop being a Jew for a single moment. I do not want my children, all the children in the country, to ask who is Jewish, if their parents are Jewish. I will not have this. I will not be an Israeli’.
These comments indicate that despite Ben Gurion’s self-confidence as to his secular Jewish identity, he continued to be concerned about the possibility of a break in the Jewish people’s historical continuity. Although he saw the state of Israel as a manifestation of authentic Judaism, he was still well aware that some would view it as a newly invented nationality. This concern was raised particularly in regard to the Israeli-born young generation, which was liable to become disconnected from the traditional Jewish identity as well as from the Jewish people in the Diaspora:
First I want to state why there is no question that we should not erase the nationality registration. I do not know if many or few say that they are not Jews but rather Israelis, because Jewish is only a matter of religion and this is a new nation established in the country, the Israeli nation. While those who favor this emphatically are only few, the Canaanites… the danger is that our children and grandchildren will see themselves as Israelis and not as Jews.
Here, Ben Gurion not only expressed his concern as to the negative influence of the Canaanites on the young generation in the country, but also came out against the civic nation model, which he identified with Herzl. Thus, while in the Knesset he quoted Herzl’s writings to justify the admission of mixed families, in the government, he actually opposed Herzl’s civic approach: ‘The greatness of Herzl remains intact’, he posited, but ‘Herzl equated Jews with citizens of the Jewish state. We do not make this equation, we do not say a Circassian is a Jew’. Ben Gurion stressed that one must distinguish between Israeli citizenship, which non-Jews such as Israeli Arabs fully share, and Jewish nationhood in which they do not partake: ‘Also Tawfik Toubi is Israeli, although he wants to destroy us. He has every right to want that, but I am a Jew, I will not let that be erased’.
According to Ben Gurion, Israeli-civic nationality meant damaging the country’s Jewish identity, and detaching the national affinity between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Hence, it is clear that Ben Gurion’s opposition to an ‘Israeli’ state did not result from his opting for a non-Arabic state, but rather from his ultimate choice of a Jewish state. This is why we have difficulty accepting the idea of Israel as a ‘non-Arab state’ as Lustick termed it. According to Ben Gurion, non-Jewish family members are not ‘non-Arabs’; they are Jews as they assimilate into the Jewish collective in Israel.
The fact that the possibility of Palestinians assimilating into the Jewish collective and turning into Jews was not mentioned during these discussions seems to be attributable to the improbability of this actually occurring.
The combination of these principles, namely, the interpretation of Judaism as devoid of its halachic laws, and the unwavering commitment to Jewish inclusive nationalism based on the Bible (albeit not inclusive of Palestinians), expresses Ben Gurion’s unique contribution to Jewish nationhood. Following Antony Smith, it could be argued that Ben Gurion’s decisions reflected the way Zionism was indeed the result of both enlightenment and modernity, which led to secular Zionism’s adoption of principles such as secular nationality and self-determination; but at the same time, it was also a creation anchored in the ancient Jewish tradition though interpreted in a modern fashion.
From the 1950s to the Present
In the wake of the political crisis, Ben Gurion chose to approach fifty Jewish scholars in 1958, some secular, some religious, asking for their opinions on the ‘Who is a Jew’ question. According to these scholars’ identities, Anita Shapira believes that Ben Gurion approached them precisely in order to attain a majority in favour of the religious stance, which is the one that was ultimately accepted. And, indeed, in 1959, a new government was established, the NRP joined in, and its head, Chaim Shapira was re-appointed as Minister of the Interior. In January 1960, he instituted new guidelines pertaining to the registration of religion and nationality on the population census, according to which a person will be registered as a Jew only if he/she ‘was born to a Jewish mother and is not of any other religion, or has converted in accordance with halacha’. It seems that Ben Gurion decided to concede part of his original stance and to enable Interior Minister Shapira to revise registration guidelines on the condition that they remain at the administrative level and not be brought for affirmation of either the government or the Knesset.
This sequence of events explains why the research literature commonly posits that Ben Gurion did not make a significant contribution to shaping the boundaries of Jewish nationhood in Israel. According to a common research hypothesis, Ben Gurion preferred to work towards a consensus on religion and state issues, adopting a ‘politics of accommodation’ attitude regarding relations between the religious and the secular, and renouncing the full implementation of his original secular worldview on national-belonging boundaries; therefore, it is claimed that he ‘made no real philosophical contribution to the issue of modern Jewish identity’.
Additional changes, which strengthened the religious position regarding national identity, were made after Ben Gurion’s resignation from office. In 1970, the Knesset amended the Law of Return, stating that ‘a Jew is one born to a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism’, a definition close to the religious criterion. While it was determined that the descendants of Jews and their spouses (until third generation) are entitled to immigrate to and naturalize in Israel, the law did not enable them to be registered as Jews since they are not religiously recognized as such. These changes, though made to Ben Gurion’s explicit chagrin, continued to weaken Jewish nationality’s secular identity, bringing the Jewish national model closer to that of religious nationality. This trend gained strength as Israel employed its conversion-to-Judaism initiative starting in the late 1990s. Proclaiming conversion of non-Jewish immigrants as a ‘National Project’, Israel launched nation-wide conversion programmes, including in the army. These programmes encourage Israel’s non-Jewish citizens (of Jewish origin) to convert to Judaism, strengthening the role of religion in defining national identity.
The significant changes made after Ben Gurion’s resignation from office, indeed, cast a shadow on his attempt to define national boundaries based on biblical–civic criteria; however, our thesis is that, in realty, these revisions did not change the basic foundations laid by Ben Gurion in the 1950s actually defining the ways of joining the Jewish people in Israel. We claim that these foundations are still largely valid today for the following reasons.
Basically, the current Law of Return, which allows those who tied their fate with that of the Jewish people to immigrate and become Israeli citizens, preserves Ben Gurion’s vision of secular nationality. One cannot deny the connection between Ben Gurion’s insistence on allowing entry to non-Jewish family members in the 1950s and the immigration of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Without Ben Gurion’s insistence on rejecting religious attempts at defining Israeli nationality, it is doubtful whether this non-halachic immigration wave would indeed have been welcomed in Israel.
Indeed, the fact that these immigrants are not formally considered Jewish, and the failure of all efforts to establish a clear secular registration formula, such as declaring Jewishness based on patrilineal descent or self-proclamation of ‘secular conversion’, weaken Ben Gurion’s biblical agenda.
However, the successful immigration and integration of most non-Jewish family members through ‘sociological conversion’, and not via religious conversion, is a direct fulfilment of Ben Gurion’s policy of nationalizing Judaism. Although non-Jewish immigrants do encounter specific problems due to the prominence of orthodox religion in Israel, especially in regard to personal status, de facto, however, Yakobson rightly summarized the situation, ‘they belong—and their descendants will even more indisputably belong—socially and culturally to the Hebrew-speaking, Jewish-Israeli society’.
Yakobson, Cohen and Susser do not associate their present interpretation with Ben Gurion’s ‘Judaization’ policy, but the link is clear: Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of people due to their association with the Jewish people according to the civic interpretation of the biblical model of joining, and not according to the halachic one.
However, this study indicates that Ben Gurion’s policy had also ruled out the possibility of creating a civic nation based on civic-Israeli nationhood alone. Thus, Ben Gurion can be seen as the founder of Israel’s ‘ethnic democracy’, a concept coined by sociologist Sammy Smooha in the 1990s as part of the debate regarding Israel’s Jewish-democratic character. Smooha claimed that Israel is indeed a democracy; however, it is not a liberal democracy which is identified with all its citizens; rather, it is an ethnic democracy which is identified with a Jewish core-nation that receives obvious preference by virtue of its hegemonic status.
Without getting into the debate whether national identification with the dominant ethnic group is exceptional on the international scene, and to what extent Israeli democracy is flawed, if at all, one of the claims voiced against the Jewish ethnic democracy model is that it has no assimilation policy, i.e. that its ethnic boundaries are closed to whoever is non-Jewish by origin or by religion, thus hindering the possibility of creating a community of equal citizens. In our opinion, Ben Gurion was well aware of this democratic problem, thus allowing non-Jews to immigrate and integrate into Israel’s Jewish society, including those not of Jewish origin. He sought to integrate civic and cultural elements into the Jewish ethnic nationality, enabling non-Jews to enter it, as long as they would assimilate into the Jewish collectivity. In other words, even if this was to be an ‘ethnic democracy’, its ethnic dimension did not preclude the inclusion of non-Jews who wished to join it.
Was Ben Gurion prepared to recognize the integration of Israeli Arabs into the Jewish collectivity had they expressed a sincere desire to be recognized as such? Would he grant Israeli citizenship to a massive number of people without any previous Jewish origin, only for their desire to identify themselves as Jews? These questions were irrelevant, given the historical circumstances. Still, in this context, it should be mentioned that as early as 1918, Ben Gurion had proposed, together with Yitzchak Ben Zvi, to Judaize the Palestinians and thus prevent fighting between these two national groups.
Moreover, despite Israel’s inclination toward ethnic definition with respect to the right to immigrate, Israel has also adopted some procedures which are not based on ethnicity that allow foreigners to naturalize in Israel. Specification of this policy is beyond the scope of this paper and its interpretation depends to a large extent on the discussion mentioned above regarding the character of the state of Israel as an ethnic democracy. However, as Yakobson and Rubinstein have noted, Israel’s immigration and integration policies render ‘Israeli-Jewish national identity more civic and cultural and less ethnic… and religious’.
Again, Yakobson and Rubinstein, as other scholars mentioned in this article, do not refer to Ben Gurion as the founding father of this policy, but we doubt whether it could have come to exist without Ben Gurion having laid its foundations in the 1950s. Ben Gurion’s insistence on these principles, which endure, albeit with several modifications, until this very day, was far from self-evident, and contributed significantly to the foundation of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, yet inclusive to non-Jewish. Based on his unique interpretation of the Jewish religion as rooted in biblical times, he re-established Jewish nationhood still constituting part of the organic continuum of Jewish history.