A comprehensive study examines the attitudes of Jews in Israel regarding the question “Who is a Jew?”
Who is a Jew? What is the essence of belonging to the Jewish people? These questions are a whole world unto themselves. They can be answered from a sociological point of view, from a cultural perspective, through philosophical reflection and, of course, through the prism of religion. Is what was once regarded as a single integrative essence – “Judaism” – a nationality, a religion, or a culture? And from the collective to the individual: Is the determination that someone is Jewish necessarily based on objective criteria applied to people from without, or should decisive importance be granted to an individual’s personal choice to identify as a Jew?
Being classified as a “Jew” affects a person in all spheres of life – the personal, the familial, and the public. As we know, the halachic legal system assigns to the “Jew” unique obligations and rights: only a Jew is obligated to observe the mitzvot. The Israeli legal system also sets Jews apart in specific contexts. For example, the right to make aliyah and receive Israeli citizenship – the Right of Return – is reserved exclusively for Jews (and their family members, as defined by law). Israel is defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people, but what definition determines who belongs to this people – the collective to which the Basic Law: “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” refers? Indeed, to the extent that the question of belonging to a collective is decisive in real-life matters it must also be addressed in legal rules whose purpose is to determine status.
But beyond the normative importance of the definition of Jewish identity, the issue is primarily one of consciousness: Who belongs to “our” circle of identity – the brothers/sisters toward whom we feel a unique sense of personal closeness, intuitive solidarity, and even a degree of responsibility – and who is outside it? It is difficult to approach this question with analytical tools. We have trouble reaching an answer because we live in a world where each person can embrace diverse identity affiliations without committing to any one of them in a way that overshadows the others. The choice to belong to a given group or to stand apart from it can now be made with relative ease, usually at no major cost. The unequivocal definition that religion offers regarding a person’s Jewishness, in an era when most Jews do not strictly adhere to religious law, is no longer the sole option, and many are seeking alternatives. In a reality where global culture is achieving dominance at the expense of particular cultures, doubts arise regarding the solidity of the particularist identity required to call someone a “Jew.”
It is also important to observe the differences between different places: In Israel the public sphere is Jewish in character, meaning that no significant effort is necessary to maintain Israelis’ sense of Jewish identity. This is a “Jewish by default” situation. By contrast, those who live outside of Israel, in a non-Jewish public realm, must work actively to preserve their Jewish identity, both outwardly and within themselves. They must choose to be Jewish, in both intention and deed.
The research before us does not seek to decide the question of “Who is a Jew.” Its purpose is modest but important: it presents current perspectives of Jews in Israel on the question. Drawing this picture is necessary because the identity of a group, in the sense of its consciousness, is not dictated “top down” (e.g., by law) but is, rather, the product of complex social processes from the “bottom up.” We live in an age of intensive “identity politics,” which manifests in pressure from different directions on the traditional definition of “Jew.” This study examines the attitudes of Israeli Jews regarding the flexibility of Jewish identity (Do definitions of Jewishness coalesce differently in each generation, or is it a fixed matter of fact that is not subject to influence?); regarding authority (If the definition changes from time to time, who is authorized to decide on it, and how?); and regarding content (What is the appropriate or accepted definition today?).
The Jewish People Policy Institute undertook this task out of an understanding of the great value of this information for anyone interested in formulating a position or policy on issues at the center of how the Jewish collective is defined. The study is not judgmental, only descriptive. It does not describe the current reality, but rather how that reality is perceived by Israeli Jews with respect to the question of defining a person’s Jewishness.
Many thanks are due to the researchers who prepared this study – Shmuel Rosner, Camil Fuchs, and Noah Slepkov. They have managed to present a complex topic in a way that makes it accessible for all readers. There is no doubt that the study’s findings will serve as a point of departure for any future discussion of these issues.
Prof. Yedidia Stern, President
The Jewish People Policy Institute