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Israel needs a standard to define who is a Jew - opinion


(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

“I decided to stay here.”

During the “who-is-a-Jew” controversy in the 1960s, law professor and (later government minister) Dr. Avner-Hai Shaki visited Kibbutz Dafna to present his position. Upon entering the kibbutz hall, he told his driver to go back home, since he (Shaki) had decided to stay in Dafna and become a kibbutz member. Overhearing the conversation, the secretary of the kibbutz came over to tell Shaki that things don’t work this way and that Dafna had an acceptance committee and membership criteria. “Really,” answered Shaki, “so to join Kibbutz Dafna I need to meet criteria and stand before a committee, but to join the Jewish people, just saying I am Jewish is enough?”

60 years later, the same lines are still drawn around the standard for the Jewish nature of Israel.

Israel, with international approval, was established as a Jewish state and a safe haven for the Jewish people following millennia of persecution and murderous antisemitic victimization. Yet for Israel to be able to claim to be “Jewish state,” it must be more than a refuge for Jews. It must, in some meaningful way, be Jewish.

That means different things to different people, but some standard for Israel’s Jewish character must exist to ensure our mutual nationhood.

Both religious and secular Israeli leaders grappled with the question of Jewish standards from the outset. Shortly before Israel declared its independence, David Ben-Gurion and officials of the Agudath Israel movement, signed the famous “Status Quo” agreement, pledging that the future government would do all it could to accommodate the religious community’s standards with regard to issues of conversion, marriage, divorce and in government and military contexts, kashrut.

In the words of the late Harry Reicher, University of Pennsylvania professor of international law, the agreement was “for significant elements of the religious population... the inducement to their participation in that creation [of Israel], and... quite fundamental to the character with which the State was stamped at its birth.”

It is safe to say that no one was completely happy with this arrangement. Some felt it was too strict, others that it was not strict enough. Yet, despite the disagreements and continuous erosion, it has survived, and has successfully helped maintain the Jewish nature of the Jewish state.

However, powerful political forces (on the far Left), set on turning Israel from a Jewish state into “a state of all its citizens,” perceive public expressions of Jewish observance, and, in particular the Chief Rabbinate, as roadblocks preventing the realization of this “progressive” vision.

As a result, the rabbinate has become the target of a constant barrage of criticism, ridicule and delegitimization for a slew of secularist organizations and media outlets. Today, the new ruling coalition has adopted some similar rhetoric and set its sights on undermining the religious status quo.

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana, for instance, introduced a series of “reforms” aimed at weakening the rabbinate’s control over kashrut. A conversion reform is said to be in the works as well. While the minister may argue that he is being more inclusive or is following what he perceives as a mandate from the new coalition government, his approach is deeply misguided.

The fundamental issue with is that this approach negates the principle that a Jewish state needs a Jewish standard. Like every organized society – from country, to professional association, to kibbutz – Judaism has criteria for membership. Mere claim of being Jewish is not sufficient to establish a person’s Jewish status. To be sure, expanding the definition of personal Jewishness may be acceptable for a Reform temple seeking to augment its membership list, but it flies in the face of a Jewish state maintaining a Jewish standard and would create discord in the Israeli society. The same applies to kashrut and other issues of public Judaism.

Through the centuries, there has been no shortage of revised versions of Judaism, from the times of Korach through those of the Sadducees, Karaites and Sabbateans. Today, many people believe in a three-winged Jewish bird, encompassing Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements. Others have redefined Judaism from a divine charge to a culture or political stance. And, as a result of such redefinitions, a plethora of “Jewish peoples” currently exists in the world.

However, only one definition of Jewish peoplehood has stood the test of time. Pithily stated by Saadia Gaon in the early 10th century, “our nation is only a nation through the Torah.” And by “Torah,” he meant fealty, at least in principle, to halacha – normative Jewish Law. The grounds on which born Jews can credibly claim Jewishness as their birthright is descent from a halacha-respecting Jewish background.

Saadia’s observation is borne out by events to these days. Just as the Sadducees and Sabbateans faded away, the newer halacha-rejecting movements are experiencing a serious decline, propped up only through “conversions” that do not meet the requirements of Jewish law.

The “Status Quo” should continue to inform the Jewish standard for the Jewish state, with a rabbinate operating independently of political whims and agendas. Anything less will yield something less than a Jewish state. It will result in “a nation like all other nations.” For the past 75 years this framework has enabled Israelis from different groups to coexist despite their differences. Conversely, dismantling the religious status quo for short-term political victories will only, in the long term, create greater discord within Israeli society.

Rather than tinkering dangerously with the Jewish standards on which Israel had been founded, we should instead focus on the millions of unaffiliated Jews in the Diaspora with little or no connection to Judaism or Israel, who know nothing about their heritage and or their land and who will be lost to us forever unless we help them find a meaningful connection.

The Israeli government’s energy need to go into making the Diaspora more Jewish, not into making Israel less so.

The author is co-chairman of Am Echad, an organization uniting Jews from across the Diaspora and Israel around the shared goals of preserving our 3,000-year-old heritage, upholding Jewish interests around the world and deepening cooperation among our communities.


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