American literary critic J. Hillis Miller described “otherness,” the characteristics of the “other,” as “the state of being different from and alien to the social identity of a person,” and we can add, to general society.
For the 2,000 years of global dispersion, the Jewish people were the ultimate “others” in many societies in which they resided. Frequently, this designation was utilized as a means of ostracizing and even oppressing our people by the authorities. It is thus a sad indictment that, when we have finally managed to regain our national sovereignty, we use this designation toward our fellow countrymen, and even members of our wider family.
During the annual release of demographic trends by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the population is broken down into “Jews,” “Arabs” and “Others.”
Most of these “others” are people who made aliya to Israel, mainly from the former Soviet Union, under the Law of Return but do not meet the halachic criteria of Jewishness. These are people who are fully integrated into our society, our friends, colleagues, neighbors, even family, who consider themselves part of the social fabric of the Jewish state and are prepared to lay down their lives in the service of their country and fellow citizens in the IDF.
These people are related to the Jewish people by blood and by marriage, yet they are frequently lumped into a designation with people who have absolutely no connection to the Jewish people, historically or emotionally.
These “others” proudly wave the flag with the Star of David, are familiar with and frequently celebrate Jewish festivals and are generally in sync with the Jewish rhythm which guides our lives in Israel.
Moreover, throughout history those who persecuted and tried to annihilate our people never differentiated between Jews according to halachic standards and the children and grandchildren of Jews. Many were murdered in the Holocaust and we count them among the six million. If they had survived and made aliya, today they would also be called “others.”
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During the early years of the State of Israel, the law did not distinguish between Jews and the family of Jews until 1970 and a change in the law.
While many see this as pure semantics, this designation weighs heavily on many and is by its nature exclusionary, with some of these people leaving Israel because they are being made to feel that while they contribute wholly to their country, they are never a full part of it.
Many would like to change their status completely and become Jewish by undergoing conversion, but the current rabbinate is constantly looking for more obstacles to be placed in their way and it has demoralized and dissuaded many a would-be convert.
Nevertheless, for those who are from the “seed of Israel” or connected to our people in another way, this important matter should be addressed in a more sensitive manner.
We should find a new designation which reflects their connection to the Jewish people and their commitment to our country and society and which doesn’t force them to the margins, not just of the official statistics, but of our society.
Historically Jewish law has been in favor of embracing rather than rejecting those of Jewish descent. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the Rama, cites the famed Tosafist known as the Ohr Zarua, who speculated as to whether a son born to a gentile mother and Jewish father is considered to be in the category of one who is at least “rabbinically Jewish,” even though he is not Jewish biblically.
Perhaps this can be the basis of a new designation that pulls them in rather than pushes away; a new Zionist appellation that recognizes that these people are not the “other” but are part of us in the fullest sense, even while we recognize the differences between us.
One possible designation can be “mekoravei yehudim” or “Jewish consociate,” meaning to associate with especially in fellowship or partnership. This new formula would move away from the distancing and frankly insulting current label which positions these people on the fringes of society and places their designation closer to the reality of these people who should be seen as full partners in Israeli society.
This discussion becomes even more pressing as we try to encourage aliya from the West, specifically North America, where only a very small minority of Jews define themselves as Orthodox, and many who meet the criteria for the Law of Return but not the halachic definition of Jewishness are invited to make aliya but will be placed on the “others” list should they arrive.
A Zionist response, which still sees aliya as a primary part of its mission, is to unite rather than to divide.
We Jews have too long a history of exclusionary politics and designations to be immune to the suffering to which labels condemn those who seek to be treated as equals and full partners in society.
As Hillel the Elder once said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah. The rest is the commentary – go and learn.”
The writer is CEO of World Yisrael Beytenu, a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a member of the executive of the World Zionist Organization and former adviser to Israel’s prime minister.
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