Eli Yishai 311.
(photo credit:Marc Israel Sellem)
Who is a Jew? It is a question that has been hotly debated, defined and
redefined since the establishment of modern Israel 63 years ago.
the difficulty in determining who is a Jew is tied to the tension between
religion and citizenship. The Law of Return opens Israel’s doors not only to
someone born to a Jewish mother or someone who converted to Judaism, but to
others as well. Anyone married to a Jew, to a child of a Jew or to a grandchild
of a Jew is eligible under the Law of Return for automatic Israeli citizenship,
as is someone who had a Jewish grandparent. As a result, an individual
considered eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of Return might not
necessarily be considered “Jewish” under religious criteria.
is true as well. In a precedent-making case dating back to the early 1960s, the
Supreme Court ruled that Father Daniel, a Carmelite priest born to a Jewish
mother who converted to Catholicism, was not eligible for citizenship under the
Law of Return even though he was considered Jewish according to
Further complicating matters is the fact that the “Who is a
Jew?” question is intimately related to the “Who is a rabbi?” question,
particularly when determining the Jewishness of converts. Here, too, the Supreme
Court has intervened, ruling that for purposes of citizenship, conversions
performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis in the Diaspora will be recognized
and converts will receive automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return
just like Orthodox converts. However, since religious services are controlled by
the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, these converts cannot marry in
Nevertheless, while the “Who is a Jew?” conundrum has not been
solved, nor is it likely to be any time soon, a fragile status quo has been
maintained. Issues having to do strictly with Israeli citizenship have been
decided for the most part on the basis of nonreligious considerations – which
only makes sense since citizenship, even in a Jewish state, is in the final
analysis not a religious matter. In parallel, strictly religious issues such as
marriage and divorce remain in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.
an insensitive and unwise move that pits Israel against the Diaspora and arouses
tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, Interior Minister
Eli Yishai is seeking to “clarify” the “Who is a Jew?” question. Yishai, who has
never attempted to conceal his contempt for non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, would
like to reinstate the status of “Jew” on Israeli identity cards – but only for
those whom he and other Orthodox Jews consider to be “Jews.”
has his way, Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism will not be recognized
as Jewish on new ID cards.
Not only is this move an affront to millions
of Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora, it is also in violation of the
spirit of a High Court ruling dating back a decade. At the time the court ruled
that, unlike individuals eligible for automatic citizenship under the Law of
Return who are not Jewish according to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox criteria,
non-Orthodox converts to Judaism had to be registered as Jews on Israeli ID
cards since they had undergone a recognized religious conversion process.
Yishai, who was interior minister at that time, too, avoided upholding the
ruling by removing the definition of “Jew” as nationality from the ID card
altogether, replacing it with a row of asterisks.
In his defense, Yishai
says it is Holocaust survivors who have requested the reinstatement of “Jewish”
on Israeli ID cards. According to Yishai, there are many Holocaust survivors and
others who refuse to renew their old and tattered ID cards, issued before 2002,
because they do not want to give up an ID card that specifies nationality as
Yishai should indeed reinstate the clause that specifies
nationality as “Jewish” – but he should do so for Orthodox and non-Orthodox
converts alike. ID cards are secular documents that determine nationality and
have no bearing on an individual’s religious status. Therefore, if the High
Court has ruled that Reform and Conservative converts must be registered as
“Jewish” on ID cards, Yishai must obey the ruling. The minister, after all,
knows full well that as long as the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate controls religious
services in Israel, there is no chance that an ID card will be used to prove
one’s Jewishness for the purpose of marriage.
Yishai’s meddling can only
arouse unnecessary tension between Israel and the Diaspora. Instead of
intimating contempt for other Jews’ heartfelt faith, Yishai should at the very
least avoid a needless confrontation that might endear him to his more
close-minded, parochial constituents but which would alienate and infuriate
millions of non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews.
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