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.

Part of 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.

The reverse 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 Halacha.

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 Israel.

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.

NOW, IN 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.”

If Yishai 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 “Jewish.”

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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