Is Being Jewish An Exclusive Club?

I remember hearing the notorious stories about exclusive country clubs in the U.S. , back in the 50s and 60s, which posted signs saying, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.”  It was shocking enough to think that anyone would equate dogs with Jews, but no less startling to discover that beloved TV and radio personality, Arthur Godfrey was among those who held such sentiments.  Featuring top names within the entertainment world on his programs, it came as a great surprised when disclosed that the Kenilworth Hotel, of which he was a partial owner, was a “restricted” hotel, meaning no Jews were allowed.

Those were the days when universities, country clubs, hotels and many other institutions held an exclusivity in terms of which people were deemed worthy enough to share the same air, use the same facilities or be educated with the same privileges.  As time went on, most reasonable and fair-minded people saw the blatant prejudice and hatred as something to be rejected and eschewed.  Little by little, Jews became accepted into every mainstream organization, institution and were able to equally hold positions of power and privilege, but knowing how long it took to overcome those terribly hurtful anti-Semitic sentiments, you’d think Jews would be the last people to reject anyone – especially their own.

As the people who were, according to the Jewish scriptures, meant to “be a light to the world” and the offspring of Abraham who would bless all nations of the earth (Gen. 22:18), wouldn’t it stand to reason that others would be drawn like a magnet to those who had something so special? And wouldn’t it also follow that some might want to attach themselves to the Jewish people, seeing that they possessed a great treasure of character and godliness?  Well someone saw that.  He just happened to be a Jewish prophet, and his name was Zechariah.  He was a little ahead of his time when he predicted, “At that time, ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zech. 8: 23)

It looks as if that prophecy has caught up with Israel, but, sadly, Israel’s Interior Ministry has decided that these “garment grabbers” should be swatted away like a pesky fly which is trying to intrude on “their” space.

In recent days, we’ve seen at least two examples of these types of stories.  The first was concerning David Ben Moshe, an orthodox convert to Judaism who married an Israeli woman and sought citizenship in the country with which he identified, after having done all that was required of him to attach himself to a people he admired and from whom he drew inspiration.  That was admirable given the fact that he was a former convict who, while in prison, turned his life around after finding faith and solace through Judaism.  However, it wasn’t until a two-year battle, followed by a daring move to go on a hunger strike, that he was finally granted citizenship, albeit in another year.

More recently, the case of 24 year-old Jared Armstrong made its way to the English Israeli newspapers where this young African American man tells his story.  He begins from his childhood, being raised Jewish by a mother who converted before he was born.  He goes on to mention his grandparents and great-grandparents who also chose to attach themselves to the Jewish people, their religion and their lifestyle.  Armstrong describes himself as always having been observant.  He attended a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia where he lived and proudly considered himself a Jew.  Careful to keep Shabbat and observe the Jewish holidays, despite his love of sports – especially basketball, he would never think of playing on Saturday but, rather, chose to spend his time in shul.

Armstrong’s mother was actually the first in the family to officially convert to Judaism as prior generations, due to slavery and civil rights issues, didn’t have such an opportunity, but it, nonetheless, didn’t stop them from living as Jews in every sense of the word.

Jared’s attempt to immigrate to Israel actually began in the U.S., where he was met with rejection right from the start.  Despite his Jewish upbringing, none of the immigration officials would accept him that way, and this became the impetus for his own official conversion which was a lengthy process.

So it came as quite a shock to him that, when finally offered the dream career of playing basketball for HaPoal Haifa, that he would be flatly turned down for citizenship.  Given the excuse that his synagogue, Temple Beth El was not a “recognized” congregation by any of the Jewish streams in the U.S. and, therefore, not legitimate in the eyes of the Jewish Agency, his dreams were dashed.

Imagine his stunned reaction when, after having gone through that the effort of conversion,  he was told by Interior Ministry clerks that his conversion was not sincere and then accused of making Aliyah for the sole purpose of playing basketball!  It never occurred to Armstrong that he would somehow have to prove what was in his heart and soul and how, despite all his years as a practicing Jew, he’d have to convince the doubters that being Jewish constituted his entire identity.

It’s fallen on his rabbi, Michael Beals of Beth Shalom, Wilmington, Delaware, the same rabbi who has an affiliation with the White House, to persuade the Interior Ministry that Jared Armstrong is the real deal – not an opportunist who is looking to earn a few shekels and make a name for himself.  Let’s face it!  If Armstrong wanted to become famous, playing for a Haifa team might be the last place he’d choose.

Much to his regret, Jared Armstrong is discovering that Israel has chosen to become “an exclusive club,” which has no room for outsiders even if they do all they can to become insiders.    But he is not alone.  Sadly, even those who were born from Jewish parentage are being rejected if they are suspected of not being observant, having a different expression of Judaism as they understand it or for whatever reason conjured up by a small group of bureaucratic gatekeepers who might as well hang a sign on the doors of the Interior Ministry which reads “Restricted!”

The prophet Zechariah must be weeping as he looks down from heaven and sees his words held in contempt by those who failed to understand the type of pull that would be felt by so many these days.  Perhaps, he would implore the workers of the Israel’s Interior Ministry to read his words found in the same chapter, because they are the antithesis of an exclusive club:  “It will yet be that peoples will come, even the inhabitants of many cities.  The inhabitants of one will go to another saying, “Let us go at once to entreat the favor of the Lord.  So many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favor of the Lord.”

One such man is doing just that.  His name is Jared Armstrong, and he seems to be a clear fulfillment of this prophecy!  Can we not find a place for him within the House of Israel, a house he has always considered his own?

About the Author
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.