“After spending decades debating and legislating the matter of Who is a Jew, it is time the Knesset attempts to understand and define what Judaism really is,” said emcee Jackie Levy at the first-ever Jewish Identity Day, marked by the Knesset on Tuesday.
Consisting of a special plenary session, committee meetings, an art exhibition and a closing session attended by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, government ministers and MKs, with pertinent musical interludes by popular entertainer Koby Oz, Jewish Identity Day was the brainchild of the Tzohar rabbinic organization and a highlight of its Tzohar Legislation Project.
The project is a forum that aims to provide MKs with a Jewish context as they undertake legislation. Together with MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Heyehudi), the forum organized a day that would focus on the role of Judaism and Jewish values in the lawmaking process.
In a statement issued ahead of the event, Rabbi David Stav, founder and chairman of Tzohar, said the Legislation Project “can serve as the ultimate guidepost in making Israel an international role model of integrity and values,” and had been “welcomed with open arms” by MKs from just about all parliamentary factions.
“Our objective is to show that values centered around Judaism and Jewish identity must become more imbedded in how Israel operates as a society,” Stav said, adding that “there is nowhere better to highlight this than in our national lawmaking body.”
Rivlin used the day’s closing session to announce the addition of an expert on Jewish law to the Knesset’s advisory staff, “thus taking a significant and practical step forward in integrating Hebrew law and its frequent influence on our legislation....
There is no way to separate Israel’s Judaism from its being democratic. And we can’t follow those, even within this house, who try to prove the failure of this complex identity.”
In his own address, Orlev chose to stress the importance of education and dialogue in reaching an understanding over the state’s Jewish character.
“The way to reach this dialogue is first of all to know – to learn what Judaism is,” the MK said. “We should never reach a situation in which ignorance outdoes heresy.”
He was alluding to a famous statement by Second Aliya ideologue and educator Berl Katzenelson (1887–1944), who lamented the fact that the secular Zionist movement wanted to raise a generation of knowledgeable heretics, but instead produced a generation of ignoramuses.
Orlev is hoping to pass a law that would widen the criteria of state funding to Torah institutions, enabling non-haredi groups to receive money like ultra-Orthodox yeshivot do.
One of the more interesting issues taken up as part of Jewish Identity
Day was the situation in which the Interior Ministry refuses to grant
citizenship to people the Chief Rabbinate has recognized as Jews,
because the ministry does not recognize them as such.
The Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee heard about the
plight of Hungarian- born Judith Weitzman, whose great-grandmother
converted to Christianity in Europe under duress. Like the rest of her
siblings, Weitzman maintains a Jewish lifestyle, and when she wished to
marry an Israeli, both the Chief Rabbinate and the Tiberias Rabbinical
Court decreed her to be Jewish, and the regional rabbi of the Golan
Heights conducted the wedding ceremony. Yet the Interior Ministry
refuses to recognize her as a Jew, and therefore refuses to grant her
Ministry representatives at the hearing said they could not convey the
ministry’s position since similar cases were currently under
consideration by the High Court of Justice. Committee chairman David
Azoulay (Shas) called for senior ministry officials to meet with the
Chief Rabbinate and members of the rabbinic court system to reach a
reasonable policy that would prevent such scenarios.