Christmas and aliyah: The Jewish state is becoming less Jewish - opinion

By sending threatening letters, they’re signaling clearly that the unraveling of the ties between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community is hardly Israel’s fault.

 CHILDREN TAKE part in a Hanukkah candle lighting, last month.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
CHILDREN TAKE part in a Hanukkah candle lighting, last month.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Driving to work, I listen to KAN Reshet Bet on the radio in the mornings. Over the past few weeks, a particular ad has caught my attention. 

“Hanukkah? Christmas? Chanuchristmas! Happy Chanuchristmas at Tiv Taam!”

KAN Reshet Bet radio ad

Hanukkah? Christmas? Chanuchristmas! Happy Chanuchristmas at Tiv Taam!” The ad exhorts listeners to celebrate Chanuchristmas by shopping at their local Tiv Taam grocery (slogan, “The freedom to choose”), which is open on Shabbat and holidays.

Perhaps to the ears of Diaspora Jews, who were bombarded with Christmas celebrations during the last month, this ad wouldn’t draw much attention. (Truth be told, Jews would probably be happy at the mention of Hanukkah at all.) But in Israel, it really is a big deal. Our winter holiday is Hanukkah. We eat lots and lots of overstuffed donuts. We light candles – and not trees, and while Christians are free to celebrate their holidays, Christmas isn’t a Jewish holiday.

Except, what do you do when a growing percentage of the country isn’t Jewish? How do you maintain the Jewish nature of the Jewish state if an increasing number of its citizens are not in fact Jewish at all?

NEW IMMIGRANTS from North America disembark at Ben-Gurion Airport after a flight arranged by Nefesh B’Nefesh. (credit: FLASH90)NEW IMMIGRANTS from North America disembark at Ben-Gurion Airport after a flight arranged by Nefesh B’Nefesh. (credit: FLASH90)

A Jewish state becoming non-Jewish

This is the reality that Israel is facing, as it deals not only with hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish citizens, but continues to exacerbate the problem by actively encouraging tens of thousands of non-Jews to make aliyah each year.

That’s correct –  tens of thousands. Earlier this year, Israel finally released statistics on the religious status of immigrants to the Jewish state. In 2020, only 28% of the olim from the former Soviet Union were Jewish. By all estimates, some 40,000 olim to Israel this year are not Jewish and made aliyah by virtue of the grandchild clause. 

It’s also important to clarify a widely known “fact” that isn’t actually true. People often assume – and have heard –  that the grandchild clause was a direct response to the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws. After all, if Hitler decided being one-eighth Jewish was enough to murder you, it had to be enough to allow you automatic citizenship to the State of Israel. 

Except the grandchild clause has nothing to do with the Nazis. This commonly known “fact” is fake news. The grandchild clause was enacted in 1970, when the Israeli government was making changes to the Law of Return, and was intended as a means to allow families to immigrate together.

THIS WEEK, leaders of the American Jewish community (and some here in Israel) sent a joint “emergency” letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the vague warning that any changes to the Law of Return “could threaten to unravel the ties between us and keep us away from each other.” Can someone please explain what they’re so worried about?

How will removing the clause granting automatic citizenship to the grandchild of a Jew threatens ties between Israel and the American Jewish community? More than 99% of US Jews who have made aliyah would not be affected by the change. Moreover, it would only affect the grandchildren of Jews who intermarried, and no longer identify as Jewish themselves.

How many of them even want to make aliyah? Why, then, is the US Jewish community issuing vague threats and warnings? What is it really worrying about? I fail to understand how they can claim that removing this clause “could threaten to unravel the ties between us.” How? For what reason?

Perhaps Mark Wilf and Eric Fingerhut and the rest of the signatories should come to Israel and hear the very real concerns of Jews living in the Jewish state. Have they tried to understand and appreciate what is motivating this widespread drive to update this anachronistic clause? Or, are they simply signaling to their constituencies, who feel “threatened” by the right-wingers, and haven’t really taken the time or effort to learn about the real issues?

Perhaps these leaders aren’t taken aback by Chanuchristmas ads. But many Israelis are. By sending threatening letters, they’re signaling clearly that the unraveling of the ties between Israel and the Diaspora Jewish community is hardly Israel’s fault. It’s very much a two-way street.

The writer is the educational development coordinator at Herzog Global, part of Herzog College in Alon Shvut. He is also the Shorashim coordinator for English-speaking countries at the Tzohar rabbinical organization, where he helps grooms and brides from around the world prove their Jewish status for marriage.