What do the two candidates for the American presidency — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — have in common? Almost nothing at all — except that their children are married to Jews.
So while it is not yet clear how the future leadership of the Free World will look, there will most definitely be toddlers running on the White House lawn who carry Jewish genes and call the president of the United States “grandma” or “grandpa.”
But are these future presidential grandchildren actually Jewish? It depends on whom you ask.
Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky is recognized as Jewish by Reform and secular Jews in the United States because her father Mark is Jewish. However, she is excluded by the Orthodox because her mother, Chelsea, is not. The Orthodox community will, however, welcome the Trump grandchildren, because their mother Ivanka (Yael) converted in accordance with Orthodox halachah. Yet Charedim in Israel may protest if they discover that Yael, the former model, does not observe Jewish law in accordance with the standards expected in Bnei Brak. In that case, they would annul her conversion, and Yael would, against her will, revert to being Ivanka.
What position has the State of Israel taken? On the one hand, the presidential candidates’ grandchildren are eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. One need not be Jewish in order to make aliyah, but only be a close family member of Jews. However, because the Orthodox rabbinical courts have a monopoly on conversion, little girl Clinton will certainly not be recognized as Jewish. Meanwhile, the Jewish status of the real estate mogul’s grandchildren will depend on the composition of the religious court that hears the case.
And now from the White House lawn to Israel’s backyard, where 350,000 Israeli citizens are defined as “of no religion.” Most of them are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return, but are not recognized as Jewish because their mother is not. Because they are defined as “of no religion,” they are not allowed to marry a Jew in Israel, cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery, face obstacles if they want to adopt children, and in general are viewed as the “other.” When a Jewish boy or girl falls in love with someone “of no religion” — in the military, in college or in the neighborhood — the parents’ joy may be tinged with sadness because of the widespread opposition to “mixed marriages.”
Israeli governments have accordingly decided — and rightly so — that converting these immigrants is an important national mission. But the facts on the ground have proven to be a slap in the face. The “no religion” sector is increasing at a rate of around 10,000 people annually (as a result of additional immigration and natural growth), while only some 1,800 convert. In other words, each year Israel adds about five citizens who are not recognized as Jewish for every new convert.
The boundaries by which the Jewish collective is defined are extremely important for the future of the Jewish people, in Israel and abroad. In the United States today, more than two-thirds of Jews marry non-Jews, and more than 90 percent of the children of such mixed marriages marry non-Jews. According to the current Israeli definition, American Jewry — with the exception of the Orthodox — is on the road to extinction. And in Israel, the growing number of non-Jews has spurred religious and traditional Jews to draw up genealogical registers, the result being that the Jewish people could divide into tribes that will never intermarry. The despair with the conversion process will spur development of a secular mechanism to define who is a Jew. Although some would welcome this, we must understand that it would constitute a revolution in Jewish history, whose significance is hard to foretell and whose risks are manifold.
Despite the importance of this matter, the chief rabbinate (which is authorized to deal with it) and the Knesset (which empowers it to do so) have neglected to address the conversion issue. Religious conservatism, on the one hand, and political timidity, on the other, are leading us to the point where the decisions made by the current generation — mainly through inaction — are casting out significant portions of the Jewish people (abroad) and leading to a tragic fragmentation (in Israel) in the long term.
We just completed the celebration of the holiday of Shavuot. The biblical parallel to Clinton and Trump is King Eglon of Moab, whose daughters, according to tradition, married two brothers from Bethlehem. One of those daughters, Ruth, proclaimed “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” and went on to be the ancestor of the House of David and the future messiah.
Ruth the Moabite got the order right — first you join the nation (“Your people shall be my people”) and only then, as a result, do you join the faith (“and your God my God”). The immigrants already have taken the first step: They are full partners in today’s Jewish national journey. Will we allow them to take the second step, too?
Yedidia Stern is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.