Converts and the “Jewish” State


The issue of whether our people have a right to a Jewish state is in the news again. In his recent speech, the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, not only stressed that our people have roots in Zion; he also stressed the right of our people to have a Jewish state in Zion. For example, in a reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he said:

“The root of the conflict was, and remains, the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own.”

The hostile response to this particular statement from various Arab and Islamic leaders only reinforced the truth of Netanyahu’s statement. These leaders favor Arab or Islamic states in the Middle East, even though these states have within their borders non-Arab and/or non-Muslim minority groups; yet, they deny the right of our people to have a Jewish state in our historic homeland. The following report from the Jerusalem Post (Jun. 15, 2009) can serve as an example:

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak blasted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday saying “Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state is ruining the chance for peace,” Egyptian news agencies reported on Monday. Mubarak further added that “not Egypt, nor any other Arab country would support Netanyahu’s approach.”

The public rejection of even the “moderate” Arab leaders of our right to a Jewish state is not just rhetoric. This rejection is why most of them adopted the following policy: The Palestinian refugees and their many descendants should be settled, not in the Palestinian Arab state which they desire, but in the State of Israel. This would turn Israel into yet another Arab state; thus, a major cause of the conflict between the “moderate” Arab leaders and the more “militant” leaders of Iran, Hizbullah, and Hamas is an argument over the best strategy to eliminate the State of Israel. Sad to say, the suffering of the many Jewish refugees who fled from Arab lands is an issue which most of the world ignores, but this is a topic for another discussion. What is very relevant for our current discussion is the following question:

What does it mean to have a “Jewish” state?

The following letter will discuss how converts provide us with an answer to this crucial question:

Dear Friends,

One does not have to be a theologian to recognize that the idea of joining the People of Israel through “conversion” is a religious/spiritual concept. As we have begun to discuss, a Gentile can join our people through accepting the Covenant of Torah and its path of mitzvos. The sincere convert therefore recognizes that in order to join the People of Israel, one must also serve the God of Israel; thus, the famous convert, Ruth, told Naomi:

“Your people are my people, and your God is my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Sincere converts like Ruth therefore pose a serious challenge to the secular establishment of the modern Zionist movement and the State of Israel. As we discussed in the early letters of this series, most of the political leaders of the State of Israel have failed to present to their own people and the world a spiritual vision of Zion. This is because the basic premise of the World Zionist Organization which founded the State was that nationalism should replace the spiritual vision of the Torah as the “raison d’etre” – reason for being – of the People of Zion and the Land of Zion. As we discussed, there were some secular thinkers and non-Orthodox thinkers within the W.Z.O. who opposed the idea that the Torah was no longer relevant for the future of our people, but their views were not accepted by most of the leadership.

For the purpose of our current discussion, as well as for the benefit of new subscribers to our study program, we need to briefly review in this letter the following information about the World Zionist Organization:

The W.Z.O. was founded towards the end of the 19th century, and the majority of its members sought to have “nationalism” replace the Torah as the raison d’etre of Zion, for they desired that we become a nationalistic nation like all other nations. An example of their approach can be found in the following statements of Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist thinker, which are cited in “The Zionist Idea” by Dr. Arthur Hertzberg:


1. “Let us be like all the nations!” (Introduction)


2. “In longing for our land, we do not desire to create there a base for the spiritual values of Judaism. To regain our land is for us an end in itself – the attaining of a free national life.” (Part 5)


Klatzkin also pointed out that Zionism is opposed to those who believe that the basis for our life is “the eternal content of Judaism” and that we are to be a “priest people, a nation of prophets.” He wrote:


“Zionism is opposed to all this. Its real beginning is the Jewish State and its basic intention, consciously and unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria.” (Ibid)


Klatzkin’s definition of Zionism therefore contradicts the message of Ruth and all sincere converts! The basic premise of Klatzkin was accepted by the W.Z.O. when it passed a resolution in 1911 which stated, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” The W.Z.O. also developed schools and cultural programs which stressed a secular and nationalistic definition of the Jewish people. This alienation from our spiritual roots still exists today, for as we shall discuss in a future letter, most secular public schools within the State of Israel do not expose their students to the teachings of our prophets and sages regarding the spiritual purpose of our people and our land.


There are some secular Zionists who are concerned about this approach, and they have come to the following realization regarding the ideology adopted by most of the leaders of the W.Z.O. in the early 20th century: Through their desire to be like all the nations and through cutting themselves off from their spiritual roots, these leaders prepared the way for the eventual decline of their own movement! I previously cited examples of this concern, including an article which appeared in a magazine published by the Gesher Organization (winter of 1988).  The article was by Asher Shiloni, a journalist and kibbutz member from the leftist Mapam party. The article, which originally appeared in the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv, is a passionate lament over the high rate of emigration from Israel which is found among the members of the secular kibbutzim. According to Shiloni, a major factor leading to emigration from the secular kibbutzim is the failure of the kibbutzim to give their children an adequate Jewish education which would connect them to their roots. He writes:


“With our own hands, we are lopping off the roots of our national being, and where there are no roots, one can awake the next morning to see that we are not a nation; it is possible to move out tomorrow, from this difficult and troubled land, to migrate and gradually assimilate – that is what will happen and what is already happening. If it is true that there is no future without a past, then we must draw the past of this nation closer to ourselves; we must understand it and respect it.”


As contemporary Israeli educators and social commentators have acknowledged, many young Israeli Jews do not identify with the ideology of the modern Zionist movement; in fact, the current period is often referred to as the “post-Zionist” period. While this development has led to assimilation, it has also led to spiritual searching; moreover, a growing number of young Israeli Jews have begun to explore their Jewish spiritual roots in order to discover the higher purpose of the People of Zion in the Land of Zion.


I will conclude this letter with a relevant message from the Book of Samuel. This message is found in the “haftorah” – portion from the Books of the Prophets – which we will chant on this Shabbos. The Book of Samuel describes how the tribes of Israel wanted to appoint a king, not to better serve Hashem, but to be a nation like all other nations. After the Prophet Samuel warned the people about the danger in their approach, the people responded: “No! There shall be a king over us, and we shall be like all the other nations!” (I Samuel 7:19)


Although Hashem allowed them to fulfill their desire, Hashem also gave them an awesome sign through thunder and rain during the normally dry summer season which reminded the people that they had spiritually fallen through their desire to be like the other nations. The Prophet Samuel then proclaimed to the people the following hopeful message regarding their ability to still fulfill their potential to become Hashem’s people through serving the Divine purpose:


“Fear not; you have done this wrong, nevertheless, do not turn away from following after Hashem, but serve Hashem with all your heart. And you shall not turn away to follow after the futility which cannot avail and cannot rescue, for they are futile. For Hashem will not cast off His people for the sake of His great Name, for Hashem has sworn to make you a people unto Him.” (I Samuel 12:20-22).


Have a Good and Strengthening Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon - Our Universal Vision