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Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a Time of Fluid Identity

Dialogue participants tended to agree that the Law or Return should be fairly strict in its criteria of Jewishness

So, participation ought to be a low-bar component of Jewish life, but there are instances when a higher bar would be appropriate. The most notable example raised at JPPI’s discussions referred to Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees the right of every Jew to a place in Israel.

In JPPI’s 2014 Dialogue report,205 we demonstrated a near consensus among Jews concerning the need for maintaining the Law of Return. “Participants overwhelmingly viewed the relationship between Israel and non-Israeli Jews, as configured in the Law of Return, as not just essential but also as compatible with democratic ideas…discussants were nearly unanimously in agreement that the Law of Return should be maintained as an expression of Jewish solidarity. Many participants thought that it serves a practical need, even today when Jews tend to live in countries hospitable to Judaism.” Their argument rested on two main pillars: the Law’s possible practical implications (for Jews in need of speedy escape), and its symbolic value to Israel-Diaspora relations.

This year’s Dialogue did not deal with the Law’s desirability, but rather with the question of who should be included under the Law’s umbrella. Participants looked at the current definitions and then discussed their current validity for Jewish world today, which has changed considerably since the law was last updated (in the early 1970s).206 Somewhat surprisingly, the fluidity of Jewish identity does not lead all Jews to expect Israel to relax its criteria for Jewish Return – in fact, the opposite may be true: Dialogue participants tended to argue for further eligibility restrictions. These include, a Jewish parent (as opposed to a Jewish grandparent, as under the Law today)207 or an accepted form of conversion (self-identification, it was felt, should not be an acceptable criterion in this case).

Dialogue participants accept the need for well-defined regulation: “You can’t measure how much each person identifies as Jewish, you need concrete criteria,” a younger Israeli told us.208 They also believe a law that enables immigration into a country has consequences more far reaching than those around the allocation of funds for programs for Jews. “Rules are needed. It’s not possible or desirable to be as inclusive as allocations”;209 “There is a difference between self-identification as a Jew for local community involvement versus application of the Law of Return.”210 Participants in several locations did not even feel comfortable discussing the rules that govern Israeli immigration policy: “Participants in São Paulo think we don´t have to tell Israel which are the criteria for immigration or in other issues;”211 “It’s more a question for Israel than for us.”212 But most participants did have a view of the Law, and were not shy in expressing it in their survey answers and throughout our discussions.

The Dialogue survey shows that Jews feel more comfortable with the criterion of a Jewish parent than with a Jewish grandparent for Law of Return eligibility, and most (except for the Orthodox)213 do not see the necessity that the parent be the mother, as Halacha dictates. In Brazil and Australia, a more pronounced emphasis was put on community criteria (“A person that the local community recognizes as Jewish” is the definition that Israel should use for recognizing Jews as eligible for the Law of Return), but in all countries the definition most acceptable was “a person born to a Jewish parent, or one that was converted to Judaism.”

Enacting stricter criteria, a Palm Beach participant argued, “is not a judgment on how Jewish you are.”214 As we have already begun to demonstrate, there is no longer a general “scale of judgment” for determining “how Jewish” a person is – we are left only with specific definitions that apply to specific situations. And it is permissible, if not advisable, that the rules pertaining to the Law or Return be more exclusive than other situations as it in involves immigration. “You have to pass tests to become an American citizen and Israel can demand certain tests for a person to become Israeli,” a Chicago participant asserted.215 It is true that many Jews would like Israel to change some aspects of its Jewish character, and many Diaspora Jews (and Israeli Jews) are hardly satisfied with Israel’s accepted conversion procedures. However, the overall feeling was that Israel has the right to demand official conversion of a non-Jew if s/he wants to become an Israeli. “It’s only reasonable that someone would have to go through a ‘proper’ conversion to become Israeli via the Law of Return. [However,] Israel should liberalize the definition of and process to become a Jew”;216 “If the person wants to move to Israel he should abide by Israeli rules”; “I don’t see how anyone can say ‘I want to come to Israel but you can’t ask me to go through conversion.’ Their country, their rules.”217

Of course, all this does not mean that Israel needs to rush into debates about possible modification of the Law of Return. History teaches that such attempts at change often result in bitter debate, and with unintended consequences. However, as the meaning of Jewishness changes, and as the boundaries of the Jewish people are being redrawn by Jews and non-Jews all over the world, it may be necessary to modify the Law, and if such need arises (as a result of growing demand for immigration, or growing pressures within Israel against the current criteria), it is worth knowing that world Jewry would not necessarily be against any attempt to narrow the path for Law of Return immigration.

 

Percentage of respondents who answered self-definition as the criteria for being Jewish for each of the following questions: 1) Whom do you consider to be Jewish?

2) How would you propose Israel define a Jew for the purpose of the “Law of Return”?

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