Who IS a Jew?

“John” is a self-described Atheist of Christian heritage with some very strong views regarding Israel, Judaism and Halakha. I drafted this response to his long and well thought out criticism of my views as expressed in my recent article, Israel, Zionism and the Diaspora: Who is a Jew” and the Conversion Problem. My entire series of some fifty articles is a discussion of the danger to Jewish survival represented by the Twentieth Century Holocaust as unfinished “Final Solution” to Christendom’s Jewish Problem. Our survival in the end will likely be to Israel as guardian of the Jewish People, the Zionist state created by the Diaspora to serve as refuge.

“John,” I find your commitment of time and effort to this blog impressive. I’ll start by considering your observation that, “While it might be true that “Halakha” standards may be too strict to properly judge who is Jewish for purposes of immigration,” which is a something of a concession to my argument. Of course I would retain the Law of Return as it was originally and wisely composed without any restriction, which raises the second part of your discussion, that religious belief still be the foundation of inclusion. But I’ll return to that shortly.

The issue under discussion in my article is precisely that a tiny minority within Israel has the ability, thanks to a flawed governing system, to influence religious policy within the secular state. They insist on all-or-nothing, Who is a Jew according to a self-serving definition of Halakha. Now, one might ask, how does “self-serving” enter into the discussion? And the reason is easily understood: Halakha was not delivered by Moses on Har Sinai, in God’s script, in stone. It is a set of rules that are interpreted by generation, and by individual and respected rabbinic scholars to conform to issues that change over time. Since there were no elevators in the First Century, an interpretation regarding what constitutes “work” on Shabbat had to be made. Very likely the “rule” continues to be contested by some such eminent rabbinic scholars. So, who made the leaders of the Haredi political parties in Israel the “final” authority on Halakha, except themselves. And why should their demands determine Who is a Jew for Israel and the Diaspora except that they are a swing vote in coalition formation?

I quoted in the article a protest by the umbrella organization for Orthodoxy in the US, the Rabbinic Council of America:

Orthodox rabbis have cast doubts on one another’s conversions, and the Israeli rabbinate has become steadily more selective even about accepting Orthodox converts who come from the Diaspora.”

It is not just my position, “John.” This issue represents a corruption of Israeli politics that is harmful not only to nearly all Israelis, most of whom would fail the “living according to Halakha” rule, but drives a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora, very dangerous for a people as endangered as even you recognize.

John:” I insist that there must be some fundamental observation of Jewish belief in those who claim to be Jewish for purposes of immigration to Israel.”

“Insist” is sort of a harsh word for a non-Jew to force on the relationship of Jew to Jew, but I’ll let that pass. As regards Jewish belief” as defining “Jew,” I doubt there ever was a time in the history of Judaism, or Christianity, for that matter, that all agreed on a single definition of “belief.” How many denominations exist within Christianity today, each with its own definition of what constitutes the correct interpretation of scripture or practice, or even degree of “belief”? As regards the Jews, “John,” the Holocaust was a historical game-changer. Not because Germany, a Christian country of Christian Europe arrived at a legal definition of “who is a Jew” for purposes of social exclusion, then acted with the authority of that law (a prototype, I suggest, for the next and final Final Solution) to murder six million innocent-except-“Jewish” persons; but because it forced the secular Jewish movement of self-preservation to accept a moral responsibility not only for those who, under your stringent definitions of “Jew” leave to the tender mercies of otherwise “good” (according to their definition) Christians. People such as other “good” Christians previously unaware that they were “Jewish” under German law, and so at risk.

Israel is a tiny state and would clearly, when the next Holocaust arrives, be unable to absorb each and every person with a single Jewish grandparent. And obviously, when the time arrives, most Halakhic or fourth-generation Jews will not be able to escape, so Israel will not realistically be in that situation. But the founding parents of the state of the Jews nonetheless extended refuge even to practicing Christians as a moral and ethical responsibility. I suggest, “John,” that does not paint Israel as “accepting” Nuremberg as a redefinition of “Jew.” Its just being human. And perhaps that mirror you possess would better be placed in front of Christianity. Because I, a Jew, would have Israel be no different than committed to saving lives.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.