Amid the segments of Israeli society that are widely known dwells a smaller population that ostensibly looks and acts like everyone else — its members pay taxes and serve in the defense of the country. They are excluded from key aspects of Israeli society, however, in an “othering” of people that has to end.
The State of Israel is home to many citizens who think of themselves as Jews, but who are not considered Jewish by Jewish law (halakhah), and therefore have always officially been designated “Other” by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). Specifically, the vast majority of this demographic are born to a Jewish father, but not to a Jewish mother. Of course, Arab and Druze Israelis have their own proud identities, but this population is not Arab or Druze either. Indeed, its members too often fall between the cracks.
The question of how to relate to those who have Jewish ancestry and want to be part of the People of Israel, when they are not halakhically Jewish, is not a new one. In the 16th century, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, a major figure in the world of Jewish law, speculated whether a son born to a gentile mother and a Jewish father could be considered “rabbinically Jewish,” even though the rabbis thought such a person was not Jewish according to the Torah itself. More recently, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, the first Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel, maintained that those who were Jewish only by “patrilineal descent” should be accepted for a streamlined process of conversion, basically fast-tracking them to join Israeli Jewish society as full-fledged members.
In the current era, many Israeli immigrants from the former Soviet Union were born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. In their countries of origin, they identified and were identified as Jews, and not always in a good way. Many only discovered that they were not considered fully Jewish upon arrival to Israel.
Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of this population did not come to Israel purely for economic reasons. Many had other options, whether in Germany, Canada, or other places that welcome Jews from the former Soviet Union. They came to Israel because they felt the pull of the Jewish state, just as millions of others have since its establishment.
Because of their strong Jewish identity, we need to find language that embraces and incorporates these people, and which makes them realize that Israel includes them in the Jewish nation, even if they are not, before formal conversion, fully recognized as Jewish. They are our partners, and we should use positive and inclusive language rather than the language of exclusion.
I am therefore delighted that the CBS has said that, upon my request, it will end the use of the term that has been in use for this population, “Other,” and create a new category of “Extended Jewish Population.” As a Jewish state, we naturally want the identity of these people to be bound up with our national identity.
We also must look to the future. The last great reservoir of potential aliyah is from North America. In the event that increasing numbers of North Americans ever seek to make aliyah, Israel will surely see an influx of those who are intermarried, or are the children of intermarriage. As statistics make abundantly clear, the majority of Jews today and the overwhelming majority of Jews in the future, will not marry other Jews.
While we hope that Jewish communities will continue to flourish around the world, Israel will always keep its gates open for aliyah, and that means we need to face this reality of intermarriage, and be more inclusive, so the non-Jewish partners and children of these marriages feel a part of the Jewish state. Perhaps the steps we are taking now in Israel will open a new discussion on this issue in the Diaspora.
As an Orthodox Jew, I am strongly in favor of Jewish intra-marriage, but as a politician, it is my job to find solutions to challenges — and not ignore them in the hope that they will go away.
We want to help anyone who seeks to convert, but even if those of patrilineal descent do not want to do so, we must make them feel that they have a connection to the national majority and foundational pillars of our Jewish and democratic state. We want them to feel pride in our national flag with its Star of David and the azure blue stripes, in the national symbol of the menorah, and the national anthem that talks of “the Jewish soul.” We absolutely must find a solution for those who are not Jewish, as defined by Jewish law, and yet are eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return.
For this to happen, we must employ different language that makes those of patrilineal descent feel like the extended family of the rest of the Jewish people. They are our friends, our IDF comrades, our colleagues, and people we see every day. They make up around five percent of the population and contribute in every field towards the development, progress and flourishment of our nation.
Changing these people’s designation from “Other” to “Extended Jewish Population” in the Central Bureau of Statistics is the necessary first step toward increasing their feelings of inclusion.