Neither friend nor foe ever accused David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, of being a theocrat. Yet Ben-Gurion believed in Israel as a Jewish state, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
He realized that only a common Jewish identity could provide the social cohesion for a population drawn from more than 100 countries and facing formidable challenges to national existence. So he appropriated religious symbols, created the Chief Rabbinate, and located the new state in the continuum of Jewish history as the third Jewish commonwealth.
For Ben-Gurion, Israel was not a nation like all others, confined to specific geographic boundaries. Rather, Israel belonged to the entire Jewish people, and the entire Jewish people belonged to Israel. The classic expression of that vision of Israel is the Law of Return, conferring automatic citizenship on any Jew.
It is one of history's ironies, then, that the Law of Return has become the single greatest threat to Israel's Jewish identity. The Interior Ministry has a computer file of more than 200,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And the leading experts in clarification of Jewish status believe the true figure is nearly twice as high.
Even those figures do not begin to convey the scope of the problem. The Immigration and Absorption Ministry acknowledges that nearly 60 percent of recent immigrants are not Jewish. That is a conservative figure. A survey of 100 recent immigrants by the ministry found 75 non-Jews, and two weeks ago the Knesset heard testimony that of the 1,004 new immigrants from Chaburusk only 38 were Jewish. Among those of marriageable age, the percentage of non-Jews in the total immigration is much higher.
The percentage of non-Jews will only grow. There are many with a vested interest in increasing the immigration from the former Soviet Union, without regard to religious status. More and more, the Russian aliya provides the Jewish Agency with its sole raison d'etre. And that requires numbers.
Another vested interest is the Reform Movement. American Jewish parents rarely demand even the most pro forma conversion from their children's non-Jewish spouses, which has severely cut into the market for clergymen advertising their conversion services.
But in Russia, they have something of tangible economic benefit to peddle. With the conversion certificate goes automatic Israeli citizenship. The Russian gets his certificate and the Reform Movement claims another adherent.
Concern with non-Jewish immigration has little to do with the personal characteristics of the immigrants. Be they computer programmers or drunken louts, prostitutes or puritans, first violinists or vicious antisemites, they are still not Jewish.
One may dream of another 1,000,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, as the prime minister says he does, or one can pay obeisance to the idea of a Jewish state (however defined), but it is pure cynicism to claim to favor both.
Indeed, those most supportive of non-Jewish immigration are those most eager to remove all vestiges of Jewish life from the public sphere. When Tommy Lapid speaks of the Russian aliya as having a valuable "balancing" function, he does not even have to say who is being balanced: the darker and more religious elements of society.
The Jewish Agency emissaries in the former Soviet Union, says Dov Kontorer, senior editor at the Russian-language daily Vesti, have "fully internalized the ideology of creating a new Israeli nation, for which Slavs are preferable to Moroccans and haredim."
Still it might be asked: If we gain computer programmers, what do we have to lose? Why did Uri Gordon, the former head of the Jewish Agency's aliya department, term the immigration of hundreds of thousands with no ties to the Jewish people "a form of national suicide"?
And why did a senior member of the Immigration and Absorption Ministry staff recommend this week a series of amendments to the Law of Return to remedy the situation whereby 10 non-Jews can enter Israel on the basis of the long-departed Jewish ancestor of one of them?
Here are a few answers. The mass non-Jewish immigration undermines the very legitimacy of Israel. The spate of bills introduced by Arab Knesset members to amend the definition of Israel as a Jewish state and to recognize an Arab right of return derive their credibility from the non-Jewish immigration.
What answer do we have to the question: Why should Natasha from Kiev, whose ancestors had no connection to the Jewish people, be preferred to Ahmad, whose family tilled the land around Safed for centuries?
In addition, non-Jewish immigration further erodes whatever remains of national cohesion. The fundamental characteristic of a nation is the ability of its members to identify who is a citizen and who is not. Jews throughout history at least agreed on one definition of who is a Jew. Like all democratic states, the Jewish people recognized only one category of citizenship. Increasingly, however, different groups of people calling themselves "Jews" do not recognize others claiming the same
title for themselves.
As a consequence, a common Jewish identity no longer has the power to bind divergent groups it once did. Mass immigration of non-Jews only exacerbates that diminished sense of common identity.
Finally, mass immigration of non-Jews has the potential to trigger a social conflagration the likes of which we have never seen. Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, who had just begin to recover from the devastation of their own absorption in the country, feel they are being shunted aside in favor of those who are not even Jewish. The resentment aroused by this sense of being shoved back into the underclass has little to do with religion.
The pork shops and churches of the non-Jewish immigrants are merely the most potent symbols of the contempt in which the Middle Eastern population feels it is held. Even crucifix-wearing, pork-eating Russians are considered preferable to them.
From our birth as a people in Egypt, the association with mixed multitudes attaching themselves to us has not been a happy one. Nor will it be today.