A comprehensive study examines the attitudes of Jews in Israel regarding the question “Who is a Jew?”
The “Who is a Jew” project was conducted as an ideological clarification effort. Its chief purpose was to attain a better and clearer understanding of the various aspects of Jewish identity in Israel. A considerable proportion of the insights and facts yielded by the project do not necessarily have implications that would entail policy change in any area. More generally, caution would be in order, as past experience shows that when attempts are made to channel identity processes in a given direction via policy, whether through legislation, the education system, or by delineating institutional or governmental policy, the results are not good. Such efforts often unnecessarily exacerbate tensions.
The project did, however, produce insights regarding several issues on the agenda, from which we may try to gather policy recommendations.
Recommendation 1: The Law of Return’s “Grandchild Clause”
This report is being completed at a time when a new Israeli governmental coalition is being formed, some of whose members have already announced their intention of attempting to change the Law of Return so that it will no longer allow the entry and naturalization of the grandchildren of Jews. There are several million people who are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law in its current form (depending on the type of change, an estimated 3 to 10 million prospective citizens could be affected). No one disputes the fact that Israel is currently home to half a million people who immigrated on the basis of the Law of Return but who are not recognized as Jews according to Halacha, or according to Israeli law. And no one disputes the fact that in recent years the share of Law of Return immigrants who are not Jews according to Halacha or Israeli law has come to exceed the share of immigrants recognized in Israel as Jews. According to a report of the Knesset Research and Information Center, over the 30 years since the Soviet Union opened its gates to would-be emigrants – the main source of aliyah to Israel – the share of olim recognized as Jews dropped from 93% (in 1990) to 28% (in 2020).
How to address this situation is not a factual matter, but rather a question of principle and ideology. One approach views the current state of affairs as problematic and holds that the Law of Return in its present form is not fulfilling its purpose: to bring people recognized as Jews to Israel. Furthermore, the Law of Return is accelerating the growth of a population group whose degree of belonging to the Jewish collective is subject to dispute. Therefore, according to this approach, the Law should be changed. Another approach notes that immigrants to Israel, some of whom have a personal-familial-cultural attachment to Judaism and all of whom fall into the category of zera Yisrael (blood descendants of Jews who are not, however, halachically Jewish), ultimately integrate with the Jewish majority, contribute to a flourishing Israeli society, and undergo a gradual process of “sociological conversion.” Over time, according to this second approach, “sociological conversion” narrows the culture gaps between those Law of Return immigrants who are not halachically Jewish (by Orthodox criteria) and halachic Jews. This report aims to present the opinions of Israeli Jews and thus, in our view, no firm conclusions should be drawn from it about whether the Law of Return should or should not be changed. However, we would like to note a few issues that should be taken into consideration before a decision is made to keep the Law of Return as it is or to change it:
First consideration: Legislation would exacerbate already-existing tensions regarding half a million Israeli citizens – immigrants who are not recognized as Jews and are designated as being of “no religion.” These citizens could find themselves represented – if only ex post facto – as people whose immigration and naturalization contradict the ethos of the State of Israel. This in turn could make it difficult for them to integrate in Israeli society, and undermine their sense of full belonging to the Israeli Jewish community. The fate and status of these Israelis, many of whom have a strong sense of Jewish-Israeli identity, must be taken into account.
Second consideration: Any change to the Law of Return that is not managed responsibly and in consultation with Diaspora Jewry will create difficulties and perhaps even lead to confrontation with the Jewish communities abroad. The justifications for changing the Law of Return in its current form are countered by major arguments against such change. Although it is ultimately, and obviously, an Israeli prerogative to make decisions regarding Israeli immigration law, it would be appropriate for discussion of so foundational a law as the Law of Return to be broad-based and respectful of the Diaspora Jewish communities.
Third consideration: It should be taken into account that change to the Law of Return, even if preceded by respectful discussion with Diaspora Jewry, could prove detrimental to large populations that identify with Israel and see themselves as Jews. A large proportion of current support for Israel and of Israel’s potential immigrant pool consists of Jewish families with a sense of connection to Israel. These families comprise individuals with and without Jewish parents, all of whom are integral, desirable, and esteemed family members. The Jewish People Policy Institute implores all those involved in the debate over the Law of Return to conduct that debate in a spirit of responsibility, moderation, and respect for the viewpoints of all Jews, between whom, as the present report shows, major differences subsist in how Jewishness should be understood today.
Fourth consideration: Some of the support for changing the Law of Return stems from a lack of confidence in the quality of the attachment to Judaism of some Law of Return immigrants. In reality, however, there are many “grandchildren of Jews” around the world who have a sense of connection to the Jewish people, and for whom immigration, or the right to immigrate, is not a quality of life maneuver but rather an expression of that identity. We should, therefore, consider whether Israeli immigration policy might be formulated in such a way as to distinguish between these two groups, not necessarily via the Law of Return, but through the channeling and focusing of aliyah resources. A policy change that would achieve the outcome desired by Israeli legislators could prevent the crisis that would result from change to a law as symbolic and as important as the Law of Return and would allow the continued influx of immigrants who have a true attachment and desire to belong to the Jewish people, even if they are not recognized as Jews (prior to their conversion).
Fifth consideration: The Law of Return issue should be addressed from a broad perspective and be part of a “package deal” that would include other measures as well – ones that would give expression and emphasis to the State of Israel’s obligation to the Jewish people, and to its continued dedication to maintaining a real and living relationship with all Jews.
Recommendation 2: Israel-Diaspora Relations
The study indicates the existence of major gaps between Jewish consciousness in Israel and the kind of Jewish consciousness demonstrated by Diaspora-based studies (with an emphasis on the US). This has mainly to do with Israeli Jews’ relatively strong adherence to an outlook that defines Jewishness in terms of ethnicity, usually that of the mother. This outlook generally corresponds to the Israeli situation, where a very large majority of Jews have Jewish mothers, and where only in relatively rare cases (though the prevalence is rising, due to a growing number of Law of Return immigrants registered as having no religion) do situations or questions about Jewishness arise based on something other than the mother’s ethnic background.
It appears that this attitudinal gap has no practical ramifications of any kind, as there is no problem with Israeli Jews defining Jewishness one way, and American Jews taking a more flexible approach. But the gap does affect the two communities’ ability to engage in respectful dialog, as Israelis (per the present study) actually expect the rules for defining Jewishness to be uniform and identical across the Jewish world, and do not accept the idea that each community will act according to its own specific rules. Only a little over 1 in 10 Israeli Jews agree that there is no need for uniformity: each place should have its own rules and decision-makers. That is: Israelis expect uniformity, and often give answers that are not consistent with the prevailing reality in other communities. This state of affairs could lead (and is, in fact, known to be leading) to discomfort with what is happening in other Jewish communities, sometimes to the point of disdain and unwillingness to recognize those communities’ authenticity.
This situation poses a problem for which three solutions may be proposed, each of which has different ideological implications:
1. Consider an intervention that would persuade Israeli Jews to change their stance on the question of Jewish identity.
2. Consider an intervention that would change the actual situation, and the attitudinal situation, in Jewish communities around the world.
3. Consider an effort aimed not at changing opinions, but at changing the attitude toward other opinions. That is: Jews everywhere will maintain their opinions, but agree to accept that there are other opinions, and recognize their legitimacy.
None of these options are easy to put into practice, and they pose a variety of challenges, both on a practical level (how to persuade people) and on a theoretical/ideological level (what would one be trying to convince people of?). It should be noted, however, that the present situation also poses problems, and exacerbates gaps between the communities. Thus, the first questions to be discussed should be whether a policy-change effort is likely to achieve its goal, and how great the risk that such an effort would both fail to achieve its goal and emphasize, or even widen, the gaps between the communities.
Recommendation 3: Jewishness Rankings within Israel
Not surprisingly, the “Who is a Jew” project reveals major identity gaps within Israeli Jewish society, with real consequences for social relations and for recognition and acceptance of the other. This is especially true when we consider the large number of those eligible for citizenship per the Law of Return, who are not Jewish in the eyes of the Chief Rabbinate, and who do not pursue conversion. This large community is integrating with the Jewish majority, making the identity controversy a concrete issue. Members of this community, certainly those who already see themselves as Jews, can find a place in secular Jewish society, which is not meticulous about halachic definitions of Jewishness. The outcome is a proliferation of what halachically oriented Jews would call mixed marriages and, in effect, the creation of families which a large proportion of the Israeli public (mainly the secular) recognize as Jewish, though another large proportion see these families as non-Jewish, even attaching negative labels to the phenomenon, such as assimilation or a danger.37
This situation poses challenges on several levels:
1. Clarifying social relations with Law of Return immigrants. These relations could weaken due to conflicts over recognition and legitimacy for various subgroups.
2. Worsening of tensions between secular and religious Jews, due to major gaps in how these groups identify the main components of Jewish identity, and the ramifications of those gaps.
3. Actual erosion of the ability of various groups to connect socially and on the familial plane, effectively splitting Jewish society into different categories of Jewishness.
The solutions that might be proposed to this situation are quite similar to those suggested in the previous section. However, as on the issue of relations with world Jewry, this challenge is hard to address because it encompasses not only practical questions but also weighty theoretical/ideological issues. Those who already consider themselves Jewish, or who attach no special importance to being recognized as Jews, will not want to take upon themselves the yoke of Judaization in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of other groups. By contrast, those who see themselves as obligated by strict rules for Jewish affiliation feel unable to display flexibility beyond a certain point with regard to accepting the legitimacy of those who have no particular interest in complying with these rules. The outcome is a progressive, and apparently inevitable, process of societal division, unless we assume that demographic realities will, at some point, entail attitudinal change, or eliminate the problem.
Of course, one of the proposed solutions to this challenge is that of conversion, which is the topic of the next section.
Recommendation 4: Conversion in Israel
A quarter of Israeli Jews feel that self-definition is sufficient for someone to be considered Jewish. Some of these Jews contradict themselves later by stating that conversion is necessary in order to be Jewish. Even so, there is no mistaking the sentiment: many Jews, though not the majority, do not think conversion is necessary, and certainly not a specific (Orthodox) type of conversion, let alone one that is particularly stringent. Basically, only a minority of Jews insist on Orthodox conversion, the form of conversion required in Israel today for those wishing to marry in accordance with the law (i.e., via the Rabbinate).
The gap that has erupted and widening between the Orthodox insisting on their form of conversion (here it is unimportant whether Orthodox or another form associated with another stream of Judaism) and the feeling by the majority of Jews whether conversion is required at all (self-definition is enough), or required but not necessarily via an Orthodox rabbi, has ramifications on several levels.
First, there are consequences for the Jewish public’s relationship with the conversion establishment, which is perceived as one that imposes its system, the minority system, on the majority. Secondly, there are consequences for the willingness of Israelis to convert, or for their concern to undergo conversion that is accepted by the chief converting institution.
As the data shows, those who undergo Reform conversion are accepted by most Jews, and by a sweeping majority (90%) of secular Jews, as Jewish. These Jews will in any case see no need to convert a Jew who has undergone Reform conversion, and if they are unable to marry such a Jew because the Rabbinate, or someone else, doesn’t recognize their conversion, then many will bypass the obstacle by marrying outside the Rabbinate’s auspices, or by simply living together without being officially married.
Today, most institutionally proposed solutions to the challenges of conversion, solutions intended primarily for Law of Return immigrants designated as being of no religion, still revolve around an Orthodox conversion process. This study’s findings do not justify the assumption that expanding this process (as in Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s proposal to extend it to municipal rabbis) or making it more lenient (in the hope that certain rabbis will agree to lower the demands) will spark meaningful change in the conversion rate. Most of those who fall into the No religion category, start families with each other, or with secular Israelis who see no need for conversion – or, who, if they do, are satisfied with some kind of conversion (3 out of 4 of the responding secular Jews feel that conversion is necessary).
The conclusions of the implications of this policy are as follows:
1. Knesset and government-driven efforts to change the conversion format may be important in and of themselves (as a means of weakening the Rabbinate’s monopoly in this sphere), but disagreement prevails over whether such efforts can significantly increase the number of conversions, or seriously encourage those of no religion to convert (under Orthodox or other auspices).
2. Under these circumstances, one of two likely scenarios should be considered. The first is a substantial and continuous rise in the share of Jews who do not marry officially (because they cannot marry via the Rabbinate, the sole permissible path to matrimony). The second is growing pressure, to the point of a decision being made, for civil marriage or other alternatives to be instituted that would allow couples whom the Rabbinate does not recognize as Jewish to formalize their relationships.
One way or another, the number of families who see themselves as Jewish but whom certain sectors regard as mixed is expected to rise. This will exacerbate already-existing tensions, against the background of demands for the inclusion or exclusion of Israelis and non-Israelis and disagreements over their Jewishness.
Recommendation 5: The Jewish Space
Of all the Jewish identity components, the one that found the greatest acceptance among the respondents and generated the least controversy was that of the holidays and festivals. Israeli Jews who disagree on theoretical/ideological identity components to a degree that is very hard to resolve, still feel that holiday and festival observance gives expression to their Jewishness. This finding, though not surprising in the light of earlier studies (especially the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Israeli Judaism study), should propel institutions and organizations into joint action aimed at increasing the agreeable presence of the Jewish holidays in Israeli public and private space. It is to be hoped that active participation in holiday observance will bring about one of two possible positive outcomes:
• For those who continue to see halachic criteria as the main basis for Jewish belonging, holiday observance, at least in the public realm, will soften the perceived foreignness of those whose Jewishness is suspect. It will also facilitate at least a partial sense of identification with these groups as they play an active role in the public realm.
• For those for whom halachic criteria are not important, holiday observance will promote rapid absorption of those who are not halachically Jewish in the public realm, to the point of full assimilation within it.
Of course, such a situation will create problems for halachic Jews (who may decide to maintain genealogies in order to uphold what they view as Jewishness), but other major segments of Israeli-Jewish society will have a reasonable sociocultural solution to a complex situation.
When setting such processes in motion, special attention must be paid to the feelings that will be aroused among Israelis by the use of language and terminology associated with Jewish activity. JPPI’s most recent Annual Assessment (2021) contains among its recommendations the proposal that the new government “encourage measures that foster the development of a non-religious Jewish identity.” This recommendation is supported by the present study. The study has demonstrated much greater willingness among Jews to study Jewish texts than to learn Torah, although it is clear that at least in some cases these activities can effectively be identical. In response to this and other findings, those who plan holiday activities should use the language of Jewish culture rather than the language of Jewish religion, especially with regard to activities oriented toward secular and traditional-non-religious populations that are wary, sometimes very wary, of anything that sounds like religious language (since in Israel Jewish religiosity is associated, to its detriment, with the political arena).