‘Prove you’re a Jew!’ A cautionary tale for all immigrants in Israel

It is important for other Anglos to know about this story. It appears that neither age nor decades as an Israeli citizen ensure that an individual can avoid this irrational situation.

 The writer celebrating his 90th birthday with friends from ESRA Beersheba. (From left) Estelle Schulgasser, Jeremy Weil, Helen Stohl, Irwin and Ethel Weintraub, Dr. Albert Jacob, Carole Rosenblatt, Dr. John and Ruth Grabinar, Joan Avigur, Ingrid Barzel (chair of ESRA Beersheba) and Judy Levine.  (photo credit: WOLF LEVINE)
The writer celebrating his 90th birthday with friends from ESRA Beersheba. (From left) Estelle Schulgasser, Jeremy Weil, Helen Stohl, Irwin and Ethel Weintraub, Dr. Albert Jacob, Carole Rosenblatt, Dr. John and Ruth Grabinar, Joan Avigur, Ingrid Barzel (chair of ESRA Beersheba) and Judy Levine.
(photo credit: WOLF LEVINE)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

I made aliyah in June, 1991. My daughter remained in Scotland, while my son moved to Texas. This was why we, my wife and I, made an annual visit abroad – before COVID, of course. My wife passed away two days after Yom Kippur 2018. Our senior grandson planned to get married two years later, and it was to be a special event. COVID got in the way, and the celebration was postponed until June 2022. As I was the only surviving grandparent, they all wanted me to be there; and as far as I was concerned, I was delighted to attend the joyous event and to take the opportunity to have a sentimental month’s holiday in Scotland.

When I leave or enter Israel, I use my Israeli passport. Since this has been my home for 30 plus years, I have had to renew the passport once or twice. When I checked it in November 2021, it had expired. Since I had “been there” before, I arrived at the office of the Ministry of Interior in a happy frame of mind and joined the queue for passport renewal. I did not have long to wait, and the officer attending to me asked me for my ID card. I call her an officer, as she seemed to have more authority than a simple clerk. I have had my ID card for over 30 years, and nobody who has inspected it ever raised an eyebrow. But this officer studied it carefully and then asked, “What is your religion?” I refrained from observing that this was a stupid question. I told her I was a Jew. And then she fired back: “Can you prove it?”

I explained that I could, but I had no desire to be arrested and charged with indecent exposure and sexual harassment, aggravated by being in a public place.

She agreed with my reservations and added that this would not be proof. After all, plenty of non-Jews are circumcised. This invaded my intellectual territory. As a house surgeon in my pre-registration year, I had not only assisted in surgical circumcision, but I also performed some myself. During 40 years as a general practitioner, one has to examine, on occasion, the appendage under discussion, and I had no hesitation in insisting, based on observation, that one can easily distinguish the difference between the end result of a brit milah and the standard surgical procedure.

I found the officer’s attitude presumptuous. As far as I know, Abraham, our ancestor, had no training as a mohel. His performance on Isaac must have been, of necessity, an amateurish effort, and yet the Deity had been satisfied.

Israeli passport [Illustrative] (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Israeli passport [Illustrative] (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The officer did not want to continue the discussion. She stated that I must have documents, including my birth certificate, which confirmed my ethnicity. She did not believe me when I told her that a Scottish birth certificate did not record such information. The only document I could provide was my ketubah. She said that this would not be sufficient and instructed me to go home, search my documents, and return with the certificates which she wanted as soon as possible. Dismissed!

I knew where my ketubah was filed. And, to my surprise, I found an official document stating I was a Jew. I had forgotten about my A.B. 64, part 1. For those who don’t know, A.B.64 part 1 is the first part of a British soldier’s pay book which contains his date of enlistment, immunization record, courses attended and result, and promotions or the opposite. And on the first page, it records the soldier’s religion. Obviously, that must be right. It is an unfortunate fact of military life that some soldiers have to be buried, and peacetime soldiers like me are permitted to fall out at the church door, after the church parade, if they belong to a different denomination. As a lance corporal, I was the senior Jew in the regiment and was required to march with the others to the camp shul when we received a visit from the chaplain.

I returned to the Ministry of the Interior the next day with my A.B. 64 part 1 and ketubah and, in due course, found myself opposite the same officer. She took my documents; copied and returned them; and stamped my ID card as valid only for the next three months. She told me that the passport and new ID card would be sent by mail. I estimated that an hour and a half of my time had been wasted. I assumed that the officer had been following instructions centrally imposed. Since the minister of the interior holds responsibility for his, in this case her, ministry’ s actions, I sent her my written complaint. 

An abusive missive would serve no useful purpose. One should always try to be constructive. I had to make it clear that I was not complaining about her officer’s attitude. Although she had been argumentative and authoritarian, she had not been impolite. She had asked if I based my ethnicity on matrilineal descent. This, from my point of view, was a stupid question. Both my parents were Jews; my four grandparents were also Jews, as were my eight great-grandparents.

I said that my argument should have terminated the discussion. Then I explained that if one was looking for visual evidence, anyone with even the most superficial knowledge of the Tanach would know the significance of the brit milah and if it was government policy to inquire in this way, the government was under an obligation to supply the necessary facilities, namely an appropriate cubicle and two suitably trained witnesses. I explained that, as I understood the text, two witnesses were necessary for legal purposes. I advised the minister that while this was a method to determine male ethnicity, it did not help in the female case but it was a reasonably easy way of settling roughly half of those whose Jewish identity was in question.

I also explained that as far as documentary evidence was concerned, the government’s attitude was unrealistic. While documents may be supplied in large communities like those in New York, those of us who come from small communities had no such facilities. While no one would deny the importance of the American community – it is the second-largest Jewish community in the world – one should not equate that community with the “Diaspora,” a common error.

When I left Scotland, my community was so small it could not raise a minyan for Yom Kippur. I resisted the temptation to inform the minister that I designated our activity as “unorthodox Orthodox.”

But the ministry’s approach to this artificial problem was slovenly. It completely disregarded the ethnic element. For example, Italians, French, Scots, English and so on can be Roman Catholic or Presbyterian irrespective of their nationality. The same could be said about Islam. This is not the case with Judaism. Many Jews are atheists but are still Jews because of their “genes.” That is why non-believers and believers were crammed together in the same gas chamber. 

So, if the ministry persisted in this exercise, which in my view has the stench of racism, it is only a matter of time before some proselytizing atheist or Parliamentary buffoon insists on using DNA evidence, and that could lead to difficulties. Expense and accuracy are the obvious issues, but the results could also cause confusion. For example, many of us have Neanderthal genes. To the best of my knowledge, no one has argued that there are Jewish or non-Jewish Neanderthals. What proportion of these genes would vitiate the exercise? Who would decide? I argued that the ministry would be well advised to reject this line of investigation before it found itself arguing against pseudo-science.

I reminded the minister of two of Ben-Gurion’s aphorisms. The first was that anyone who would be murdered in a gas chamber because he/she was Jewish should be accepted. The second, which was more light-hearted, was that anyone mad enough to want to be a Jew should also be accepted. He exercised wisdom, which is different from intellectual brilliance.

I finished the letter on a personal note. While one has no objection to answering questions, it is tantamount to saying that one is a liar if documentary evidence is required to support an honest response. This is a gross insult.

Secondly, the assumption that pre-conceived documentary evidence is available indicates that the ministry in general is ignorant about variations within the Diaspora. The sooner it gets educated about this issue, the better. And finally, if one of the ministry’ s employees insults an individual with deficient anger management ability, the questioner might be assaulted. Prevention is better than cure.

I estimated that the search for documents and the return to the Interior Ministry took an hour and a half of my time. Since this time was used to satisfy the ministry’s needs, I believe the minister should authorize appropriate payment. And since I estimate my time is worth NIS 500 an hour, I enclosed a bill for NIS 750 with my complaint.

I posted what I had written to the minister by registered mail because I knew that if this type of situation becomes public, the recipient can’t escape responsibility by saying she had never received the relevant documents. I am not naïve. I did not expect a reply and was not disappointed when none arrived.

I contrast this response with Nicola Sturgeon’s action when I wrote to her concerning my right to medical attention in Scotland. Although I have no voting rights concerning matters which affect my Scottish pension, she responded promptly and told me that she had passed my letter to her chief nursing officer, who would reply in detail. I received this reply which confirmed that I have an absolute right to emergency medical attention, but it ended with the pessimistic advice that I should still obtain “private health” insurance because the Scottish government could not be responsible for flying my body home to Israel assuming unfortunate consequences.

And while I was working in Scotland and having a problem in prescribing a special catheter for an elderly patient, I complained to my MP, who raised the issue with the minister of health, who informed him, and through him, me about the equivalent device made by another company.

And here, when I had a number of complaints concerning my job with Clalit, I wrote to Haim Ramon, who was at that time was head of the Histadrut. Although he did not answer me directly, he raised the issues with my manager, who was “bruised” that I had not consulted him directly. The problems were solved amicably. It appears that the minister of the interior could learn a great deal about her responsibility to members of the public from those people who held significant elected office when I wrote to them.

I assumed that the issue with my complaint was finished. I was wrong.

I was happily eating my lunch one day when the telephone rang. It was a woman from the Ministry of Interior who told me to take my ketubah and other documents (nonexistent) to the local beit din at my earliest convenience.

I do not like having my meals interrupted in this way, and since I know how to shout, I made the woman in question understand that I was decidedly angry. She did not interrupt; and when I had finished, she assured me that she understood why I was angry and apologized for the situation and her inability to help me.

I decided that it was now time to consult my lawyer, who is also a personal friend. I went to the beit din the next day and after waiting in the reception area, I was attended by an official who did not speak English. He gave me three forms to complete, one of which wanted to know the birth dates of my four grandparents. I am now over 90 years old, so I was being asked to provide information about events which had taken place about 150 years ago in a foreign country (or countries?) whose language I did not speak. I could give my parents’ birth dates. The official thought it wise to pass me to another gentleman, who spoke English. This gentleman informed me that there had been problems with some of the Russian immigrants’ ethnicity, hence the activity. I replied, civilly I believe, that I was not a Russian. My lawyer agreed to complete the forms to avoid mistakes on my part. He also advised me to get documentation from Scotland. 

When I was told that I would have to go to the beit din, I thought it wise to inform my daughter about what was going on. If my ethnicity was in doubt, so was hers, which meant that she too was involved. She was as angry as I was.

Debby, my daughter, has a long history of communal activity, so she asked the rabbi in Glasgow who deals with these matters about the validity of my ketubah. In due course, she sent me the result of the investigation. The rabbi who conducted my marriage ceremony was above reproach. Without doubt, I was a Jew.

While all this was going on, my new passport and ID card arrived by post; both biometric. I assume this was because nobody was denying my rights as a citizen of our state. But shortly after, I received a summons to appear before the Rabbinical Court. My lawyer advised me to attend, and he would accompany me.

We met on the appointed day outside the court. I noted that he was wearing a formal suit, unlike me in trousers and a hoodie. But I felt it would be appropriate to wear a kippah. He approved. We were shown to the waiting area, and a notice informed us that my case was the last that morning. The court must have been super-efficient that day because we did not have long to wait.

There were three judges. My lawyer explained his presence. The central judge, the chairman, addressed me directly. His question, which I interpreted as hostile, was “Did I not speak Hebrew?” I chose to answer in Hebrew.

I explained that I could happily converse in Hebrew and had no difficulty in a supermarket or when buying clothes. But the beit din was a court of law, and in such settings technical terminology was the rule, and my vocabulary did not include those specialized words. That was why my lawyer was needed to protect my interests. The chairman seemed to understand what I was saying.

I found the chairman interesting. His beard was about a foot long, considerably longer than mine. I do not believe it had any useful function, unlike mine which saves me the bother of shaving in the morning and gives me about 15 minutes longer to read before getting out of bed.

Despite the length of his beard, I calculated that the chairman was young enough to be my son, perhaps even my grandson.

I was also interested in a younger judge who was on the chairman’ s left. He seemed amused by me and leaned over to whisper in the chairman’s left ear.

When I sat down, my lawyer discussed my documents with the chairman. Neither projected well, so I could only guess at what was happening. After about 15 minutes, the chairman indicated that the hearing was over. I took the opportunity to address the court again. I told them that I was very angry, not least because I am a Kohen; my status was under double attack. The judge on the chairman’s left was even more amused, and he whispered something more in the chairman’s ear. And then we withdrew.

My lawyer told me that what had happened was encouraging. He had been required to take my documents to the court’s office, where they would be copied for the chairman’s use. He also said that the chairman expected to make a judgment in my favor. Some weeks later, a certificate arrived in my mail which told me what I had known all my life: I am a Jew.

This whole episode wasted six hours of my time, so I calculate that the ministry now owes me NIS 3,000. I would be happy if the money was paid to a charity of my choosing. 

I find it strange that nobody asked me if I had relatives in Israel who could confirm that I was a Jew. That might have saved a great deal of time. I have cousins on my mother’s side of the family. When my mother married in 1930, her mother’s brother, Uncle Yankel Leib, was on his way to what was then Mandatory Palestine from Lithuania. He interrupted his journey to attend my parents’ wedding. This created a stir in Dundee’s newspaper, and we have the relevant cuttings and photographs. The two branches of the family continued to “keep in touch,” and Uncle Yankel Leib’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren know me well. They have made a significant contribution to community life here, and one has even been an MK. 

The paradox is that to call my ethnicity doubtful means theirs too must be in doubt, since it is the same lineage.

It is important for other Anglos to know about this story. It appears that neither age nor decades as an Israeli citizen ensure that an individual can avoid this irrational situation.

“Forewarned is forearmed.” ■

The writer is a retired physician living in Beersheba.