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Jewish Identity is Highly Explosive: Handle with Care

The appalling turn of phrase recently used by Israel’s Minister of Education Rabbi Peretz to describe Jewish assimilation as a “second Holocaust,” once again brings to the fore the question of Jewish identity from a moral and systemic perspective, in all its complexity. Unlike other issues of “religion and state,” this one concerns not only those who live in Israel, but also millions of Jews around the world. In a procedural legislative context, this hot potato will be one of the first items on the agenda of the government that will be formed after the September elections. It will need great sensitivity, not only to the Israeli electorate, but also to Jews around the world.

The question of “who is a Jew” and what is considered legitimate conversion in Israel has been of serious concern to both Israeli society and diaspora Jewry for decades, and is often the focus of fierce political debate. To be sure, there are formal legal aspects to this question, but it also has many deep-seated value-based and emotional aspects, and has fateful implications for hundreds of thousands of Israelis and millions of Jews living abroad. It is perhaps the most complex of all Israel’s issues relating to religion and state, as it goes to the heart of the unique Israeli trinity of nation-religion-state, three concepts intimately bound up with one another. Moreover, this is an issue with a critical impact on the character of the state, since Israel awards citizenship (via the Law of Return) to anyone it recognizes as being Jewish.

In Israel, there are some 400,000 citizens who live their lives as Jewish Israelis in every respect: they study in the Israeli education system, serve in the IDF, and are integrated in all areas of activity. Yet, they are not recognized as Jewish according to the halakhic definition. Most of these citizens would be happy to formally join the Jewish people, if only there were an accessible conversion process based on halakhic approaches that take into account their special status and their strong connection to the Jewish people.

Beyond Israel’s borders, mainly in the United States, there are millions of Jews who belong to non-Orthodox denominations, and whose definition of belonging to the Jewish people differs from the Orthodox halakhic definition. Nevertheless, they consider themselves (and their family members who may not be halakhically Jewish) as Jews in every respect. When the Minister of Education spoke about assimilation and the Holocaust, these are the people to whom he was referring. It is true that some of these Jews, including some who are perfectly “kosher”, are losing touch with Israel and with Judaism, and are assimilating. But considerable numbers among them are members of Jewish communities, celebrate Jewish festivals, and as a result—are closer, and identify more with Israel.

While the impact of most internal Israeli issues on Israeli policy is limited to Israeli citizens, when it comes to questions of Jewish identity, every decision and every public statement made in Israel reverberates throughout the entire Jewish world. Even those diaspora Jews who have no intention of moving to Israel, still see the Jewish state as a spiritual home, and see its decisions regarding Jewish identity as highly meaningful for their own lives. Declarations and legal decisions that alienate them cause many them to distance themselves from Israel, and in effect, push them away from the Jewish community. 

The current legal situation regarding Jewish identity and conversion in Israel is complex. Murky legal definitions combined with a myriad of Supreme Court decisions have led to a situation in which almost every conversion carried out in a Jewish community abroad is recognized in Israel. Ideally, this substantive issue should be resolved in a coherent and consensual manner. But experience has shown that given the great sensitivity of this issue, murkiness and inconsistency have their advantages. Consequently, all the decision-makers and parties involved—national-religious, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, and all the rest, would do well to be cautious in word and in deed, and should be fully aware that the eyes of millions of Jews in Israel and abroad are upon them. It is in their hands to bring these Jews closer, but also – to push them away. 

The article was first published in Israel Hayom.