A man wearing a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the years, there have been many disputes among Israelis about who should be empowered to answer the question “who is a Jew?” Indeed, the question of “who is a rabbi?” is intimately connected to the question of “who is a Jew?” Generally speaking, an Israeli consensus has empowered the Orthodox establishment under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate with a monopoly over matters concerning Jewishness. Marriages and divorces among Jews are conducted solely in accordance with Orthodox practice. So are most burials (though secular options are now available as well). Kosher food supervision is monopolized by the Chief Rabbinate, and municipal rabbis who receive salaries from the state are all Orthodox.
But when it comes to immigration as governed under the Law of Return, the definition of “who is a Jew?” is much broader. Not only those born to a Jewish mother or those who converted to Judaism in an Orthodox ceremony are eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, but so are individuals related to Jews.
Even the spouse of someone whose paternal grandfather was Jewish is eligible for automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The idea behind the law was to purposely broaden the definition of “who is a Jew?” to provide an asylum for all those who have been persecuted over the centuries as Jews, even if they are not Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law or Halacha.
Conflicting definitions of “who is a Jew?” cause problems for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their offspring. Some are children of foreign workers who received Israeli citizenship. These are people who see themselves as full-fledged Israelis. They serve in the IDF, immerse themselves in Israeli culture, have learned the Hebrew language and have tied themselves to the destiny of the Jewish people living in Israel.
But while they might act fully Israeli in their day-today lives, some Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha do not feel fully at home in Israel. In part, that’s because they cannot marry here. They know that when they die they will not be buried alongside their fellow Israelis, even if they are killed in battle fighting for the Jewish state.
Also, Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha are often seen as a threat to Jewish continuity. While assimilation and intermarriage rates are skyrocketing among Diaspora Jews, Israel is the only place in the world where the number of Jews is actually growing.
But non-Jewish Israelis, particularly women, are seen as endangering this growth because their children are not Jewish according to Halacha.
Over a decade ago, recognizing the need to integrate these non-Jewish Israelis, the State of Israel set up a special conversion apparatus in the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with making the conversion process as easy and “user friendly” as possible while at the same time adhering to Orthodox criteria.
This week another step was taken toward making the conversion process easier, without compromising Halacha. A bill drafted by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua) was approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for final readings in the Knesset plenum. If passed, the bill will decentralize authority over conversions, giving municipality rabbis more autonomy.
But the reality is that no matter how easy the conversion process, all, or even most, Israelis who are not Jewish according to Halacha – who are said to number more than 300,000 – won’t opt to convert. In part, this is because for someone without religious faith it makes little sense to commit to an Orthodox lifestyle in order to become full-fledged Jewish Israelis, especially when most Israelis – the group to which the prospective convert is trying to belong – don’t bother to live in accordance with Orthodox strictures.
Ultimately, one’s religious identity is an eminently personal matter that is no business of the state. While every step should be taken to make the conversion process as easy as possible – within the bounds of Halacha – we should also learn to respect and accept those who feel their Israeliness is not conditional on their Jewishness.