A Return to the Bar-Yehuda Definition

The state will not be more Jewish if it keeps out people who see themselves as Jews or if it refuses to designate as Jews those whose fathers are Jews or whose attachment to their Jewishness is clear as day. On the contrary: Israel will be much more Jewish if it realizes the vision of Minister Yisrael Bar-Yehuda and opens up a civil pathway to the recognition of Jewishness, alongside the rabbinical pathway.

A democratic state is a political framework whose population consists of citizens, not “subjects.” The citizens are entitled to an array of human rights that multiply over time, and, periodically, they determine who will lead them. Every year, the Freedom House organization issues its ratings of the world’s democracies based on universal criteria. According to these criteria, Israel falls into the “flawed state” category, along with other, older, democracies.

The Jewish state is harder to define than other states, as reflected in the disagreement that persists to this day over how to translate the title of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl’s canonic work Der Judenstaat, written in German and published in 1896: should it be The State of the Jews or A Jewish State? Based on Herzl’s own writings and personal diary, it is highly likely that he meant The Jewish State, and that he wanted it to be founded within five years, not fifty. However, the vision of the state did not succeed in preventing the Holocaust of European Jewry. Herzl, with his sharply-attuned senses, understood the urgent need to deliver these Jews from the specter of growing antisemitism, and in his book, as in his diplomatic activity, he affirmed that the goal was, first of all, to physically save Jews. With this in mind, he even proposed the grotesque idea of converting all of Europe’s Jews to Christianity.

Herzl, in my view, was the greatest of them all. The outstanding achievement of his lifework was the Balfour Declaration, thirteen years after his death. The biggest failure was the Declaration’s non-realization by world Jewry, while it was still possible to take action on it, immediately after the end of World War I.

A Jewish state is, above all, the state of the Jews, with a stable Jewish majority. That majority makes the state’s laws, and it is what ensures the rapid naturalization of the Jews who reach its shores, after the long years of restrictions on Jewish immigration that existed until the state was founded.

A Jewish-democratic state cannot ensure a Jewish majority by withholding suffrage from non-Jews or by keeping non-Jews out. Israel’s Jewish majority can be ensured by two means only: setting borders that will assure a Jewish majority within the territory under the state’s direct and indirect control, and Jewish immigration on a very large scale. There is tension between the concepts “democratic” and “Jewish,” and this tension will not be resolved by the flourish of a pen or the thrust of a sword. The debate over certain decisions (such as the Nation-State Law), and the continued existence of institutions that perpetuate discrimination against minorities (such as the Jewish National Fund) will remain on the agenda of Israel’s leadership, and that leadership will have to address those issues. But the claim that the very existence of a Jewish state is detrimental to democracy and to the Arab minority is groundless. The tension will persist in the future, but not out of inherent contradiction. This tension is one of Israel’s salient characteristics.

The Jewish majority that will ensure that Israel remains the state of the Jews must consist of two parts. One is that of Jews by ethnicity, and the other is that of Jews by decision, consciousness, and self-definition. Given that the majority of Jews living in Israel are not religiously observant, one cannot justify granting the Orthodox-Jewish minority a monopoly on determining “Who is a Jew.”

In the modern world, where people are not defined by their religion and where there are believers, atheists, and agnostics, the Jewish communities in Israel and abroad would do well to accept with open arms those who wish to join them, on condition, of course, that the communities are persuaded that these people are joining in good faith. Deciding what constitutes “in good faith” would be the task of those appointed for the purpose by the Jewish communities abroad and in Israel.

The guideline issued in the 1950s by Minister of the Interior Yisrael Bar-Yehuda to the Immigration Office (later the “Immigration Authority”) to the effect that “[a] person who declares in good faith that he is a Jew should be registered as a Jew, and no other proofs should be demanded of him,” was, in my opinion, the most Jewish and the most humane guideline that could have been formulated.

Against the background of a public debate waged in 1958 over the “Who is a Jew” question, the Israeli government decided that those who self-define as Jews cannot be affiliated with other faiths. In the wake of this decision, a Carmelite friar known as Brother Daniel (originally Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen, a Zionist Jew who saved 300 Jews from the Mir Ghetto during the Holocaust) was denied Israeli citizenship per the Law of Return. Paradoxically, because Halacha does not recognize Jewish apostasy, Brother Daniel would have been entitled to citizenship had the decision been a matter of Jewish law. It was actually Israeli secular law that held it inconceivable for a Catholic friar to immigrate to Israel as a Jew.

Oceans of ink have been spilled about the Supreme Court ruling that denied Brother Daniel registration as a Jew, and the decision’s appropriateness is still being debated. It is a fact, however, that at a critical moment secular law was called upon to render a decision, in disregard of the religious norm. There is therefore clearly no basis for the claim that, if the governmental authority were tasked with assessing the question of “good faith,” large numbers of people would enter Israel who, in good faith, identify with the fate of the Jewish people but whose presence would give rise to two Jewish peoples unable to mix.

For years now, the rabbinical establishment has been maintaining genealogical lists of mamzerim (persons born of biblically “forbidden” unions and thus subject to severe halachic restrictions on marriage) and of people whose parents were married in civil ceremonies abroad recognized by Israel. The rabbinical establishment prevents a large segment of Israelis from marrying at all, or from marrying people with certain characteristics, e.g., kohens cannot marry divorced women or converts (the children of such unions bear chalal or “defective kohen” status), and yet Israeli society has not fallen apart over this. Religious Jews are certainly permitted to refrain from marrying mamzerim, and kohens are certainly entitled not to marry converts, divorcees, or anyone else, but these restrictions are not supposed to obligate the Jewish majority. The majority should allow the devout minority to adhere to its laws, but it must not give that minority veto rights over the private lives of those who make up Israel’s Jewish majority.

We, the Jewish majority in Israel, will not be able to reach a consensus regarding the values of our state. Our common ground is not ethical, but rather historical. Among us are the compassionate and the cruel, those who contribute to society and those who don’t, those who are vengeful and those who aren’t, those who are insular and those who are open to the world, conservatives and liberals, secular people and deeply religious people, and those who are traditional.

In the eyes of parts of the religious public, a Jewish state is a state that upholds the religious commandments. For most Israelis, however, a Jewish state is a state where Hebrew is the language of most citizens, where the education system’s calendar and vacations are aligned with the Jewish holidays and, above all, where people who do not engage in religious practice or ritual are also able to ensure Jewish continuity.

Israel was founded as a solution for the Jews, and it has become a solution for non-religious Judaism, in that it enables the Jewish story to be passed from generation to generation even if we do not pray three times a day or dot the i’s and cross the t’s of religious observance. Alongside assuring the Jewish people’s physical survival and the commitment that any Jew, anywhere in the world, will be able to take refuge in Israel or obtain Israeli citizenship, the country’s large Jewish population also ensures the Jewish people’s continued existence. Most Israeli children who have one Jewish and one non-Jewish parent identify with the Jewish ethos and destiny.

The Jewish peoplehood that today to a great extent connects Jews worldwide stems from our attachment to Jewish heritage, but not necessarily from attachment to the Jewish religion. The Jewish people pass the torch from generation to generation, and what sparks the flame and keeps it burning is the monotheistic faith that embraced many customs of earlier cultures (including circumcision), a ritual practice that relates to both personal and collective providence, a God specific to the Jewish people, relentless battling of idolaters, long years of suffering and of contending with empires, brief periods of sovereignty in Eretz Israel, exile, and more exile, struggling to survive in exile, facing implacable Jew-hatred, a Holocaust and the establishment of the Third Jewish Commonwealth; as well as a fair amount of pride – in the Book of Books, in the Jewish genius, in the ability to survive, in the centrality of education, in Israel’s military victories, in the Start-Up Nation. This is the sum total.

In Israel one may wear a kippah or a shtreimel without having to look over one’s shoulder in fear of antisemitism. One may also not fulfill the religious commandments, yet still live as a Jewish and Israeli patriot.

To ensure a stable Jewish majority in Israel; to make sure that there is full equality for the large Arab minority that lives here; to lead a normal life – with the religious minority not subject to coercion; to aspire to be an am segulah (a “treasured nation”) thanks to our actions and not our DNA; to make a supreme effort so that our normal and proper lives are not lived at the expense of others or on their backs; to be a part of the enlightened world; to not be ashamed of our actions; to not find ourselves always having to justify our deeds; to fight Jew-hatred; to ensure a good and ongoing relationship with world Jewry and especially with the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, that of American Jewry – all of these things should, in my view, be the shared values of the Jewish-democratic state.

And regarding the “Who is a Jew” question: We would do well to revive Bar-Yehuda’s guideline and to allow all those who see themselves as Jews to enter our gates, on condition that they come here in good faith. If there are suspicions that a specific person does not have a special relationship with the Jewish people, or if it should turn out that that person cannot prove any ties to the Jewish people, then we won’t be obligated, morally, to admit him.

The institutional rabbinate will certainly not accept as Jews those who join us without being halachically Jewish, and that is just fine. If those people want to be married according to religious law, they will have to convert. But the state will not be involved in or offer state conversion, nor will the IDF be mobilized for the conversion endeavor. The distinction between being designated Jewish based on one’s own personal declaration, and being designated Jewish based on ethnicity, will enable many people who have obtained citizenship per the Law of Return even though they are nor Jewish according to the rabbinate to register as Jews, but to do so without having to swear false oaths about their intention to lead religious lives in Israel and to send their children to religious educational institutions.

The state will not be more Jewish if it keeps out people who see themselves as Jews or if it refuses to designate as Jews those whose fathers are Jews or whose attachment to their Jewishness is clear as day. On the contrary: Israel will be much more Jewish if it realizes the vision of Minister Yisrael Bar-Yehuda and opens up a civil pathway to the recognition of Jewishness, alongside the rabbinical pathway.


Dr. Yossi Beilin is Chair of the student organization Hillel Israel, a founder of Taglit-Birthright Israel, and a former Israeli government minister.