Editorial: A path back to Judaism

Is Jewishness a religion, culture or nationality?

Is Jewishness a function of religion, culture or nationality? According to the High Court, it is all of them at once.
In a fascinating legal decision that touches on the very core of Jewish/Israeli identity, the country’s supreme legal authority ruled last week that a woman who converted to Christianity and immigrated to Germany could not regain her Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, even though two Orthodox rabbinical courts – in London and in Tel Aviv – had determined that she was Jewish.
However, in their precedent-making decision, the three justices – Neal Hendel, Elyakim Rubinstein and Hanan Meltzer – gave the woman the option of regaining citizenship if she could prove to the Interior Ministry her renewed commitment to the Jewish people.
Precisely how she would accomplish this “return” was left unclear, but it suggests a radically new conception of repatriation through personal transformation akin to the Jewish concept of tshuva – “repentance” and/or “return.”
H.Z., born in Israel in 1950 to parents who survived the Holocaust, married a Catholic in a ceremony that took place in Jaffa in 1975. H.Z. had to declare that she had been baptized into the Catholic faith to marry. She was registered accordingly in the Religious Affairs Ministry’s records. In 1977, H.Z. and her husband moved to Germany, and in 1985, due to tax issues, H.Z. asked that her Israeli citizenship be revoked, noting in official documentation, “I am living as a Christian now anyway.”
In 1992, however, H.Z. asked German authorities to have her name removed from the registrar of the Christian community. And after sustaining severe injuries in a car accident, being abandoned by her husband and losing her mother, H.Z. asked the Interior Ministry to reinstate her Israeli citizenship, claiming her conversion to Christianity was faked. Her request was rejected despite her kosher stamp of approval from two rabbinical courts.
In their carefully argued unanimous decision, the High Court justices established from a diverse array of sources that Israeli citizenship is tied to a highly complex and exclusionary construction made up of religious, national and cultural considerations.
Prime minister David Ben-Gurion, noted the justices, in a 1950 speech to the Knesset during the passage of the Law of Return, which granted automatic Israeli citizenship to any “Jew,” declared that “no other law better expresses the uniqueness of the State of Israel. This law fuses history, culture and religion; past, present and future; aspirations dreams and realities.”
The justices also cited historical studies which showed that Jewish communities throughout the ages sanctioned those members who voluntarily left the fold. These converts to other religions were still considered Jews in the strictly religious sense for the purpose, say, of marriage and divorce – just as H.Z. was still considered Jewish by London’s and Tel Aviv’s rabbinical courts. Nevertheless, communities throughout the ages regularly ostracized these people, the justices noted, suggesting that in modern Israel the refusal to reinstate citizenship was a legitimate response to H.Z.’s behavior.
Legal precedents were mentioned as well. There was the 1962 High Court ruling on Oswald Rufeisan, a Jew who became a Carmelite monk, whose request for Israeli citizenship was rejected despite his self-professed connection to the Jewish people.
In addition, the justices showed how the Knesset’s 1970 amendment to the Law of Return – which stipulated that a Jew was someone who was either “born to a Jewish mother” or “who converted” and had “no other religion” – was obviously inspired by Jewish tradition.
And they noted that Aharon Barak, former president of the Supreme Court, basing himself on solely secular criteria, acknowledged in 1987 that a Jew who believed Jesus was a savior had removed himself from the Jewish collective and was, therefore, to be denied Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
But the truly earth-breaking innovation presented by the justices in H.Z.’s case was the application of the Jewish concept of tshuva to the Law of Return.
H.Z. might have cut herself off from the Jewish people when she embraced Christianity. But the way back is not blocked, the justices made clear. H.Z., rightly, still has a chance to regain her lost Israeli citizenship through the Jewish process of repentance.