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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

A Jewish state IV: joining the club

Galilee Diary #189;
July 11, 2004
Marc Rosenstein

Any Jew is entitled to immigrate to Israel. 
          -Law of Return, 1950

This right… applies also to the child or grandchild of a Jew, to the spouse of a Jew, and to the spouse of the child or grandchild of a Jew. For purposes of this law, “Jew” means one who is born to a Jewish mother or converted, and is not a member of another religion.
          -Amendments to the Law of Return, 1970

There are a number of different streams of Zionism, different interpretations of the purpose and vision of the Jewish state. Ideologies wax and wane over the years. The socialist Zionism of the “founding fathers” is rather in eclipse just now. Achad Ha’am’s view that the Jewish state was not to be the physical home of all the Jews, but a cultural center sustaining the Diaspora, has endured and seems to many to express the reality of 21st century Jewish experience. However, since the Holocaust, there is a bottom line, a lowest common denominator to the various views of the significance of Israel, that the whole Jewish world seems to take for granted: Whatever else it is or isn’t, Israel must be the place that “when you have to go there, they have to take you in” [Robert Frost]. Never again will we place ourselves in the situation of having no refuge, of being dependent for our survival on the hoped-for kindness of strangers. And by eliminating this threat of dependency and destruction, Israel’s very existence empowers every Jew, giving us the ability to live with our bags packed – not as potential refugees, but as citizens with the security to stand up for what we believe in, to wear our identity with pride, to take risks – for we know that no one has the power to make us homeless, powerless, dependent.

Therefore, the Law of Return is one of the master symbols of the Jewish state. And yet, despite the consensus surrounding it, it has been and is a subject of ongoing arguments, not so much because it is a law that discriminates on the basis of religion – after all, it is hard to imagine any state abolishing all discriminatory immigration restrictions; rather, because of the extension of the law to include categories of people who clearly lie outside even the most liberal definition of “Jewish.” The unanticipated result of this liberal formulation has been to admit into automatic citizenship under the Law of Return over 300,000 people who are not Jewish by halachic standards, and of whom tens of thousands, at least, are not Jewish by any other standard either (self-identification, education, etc.). For many of these, Israel is simply a place of refuge from the instability and poverty of their home countries; its Jewishness is irrelevant.

There is a strong feeling among Jews of most factions that we should be encouraging and facilitating the conversion of non-Jewish immigrants to Judaism. However, the rabbinical establishment has been notoriously resistant to any easing of the strictures on accepting converts, and under 1,000 conversions are performed per year. The liberal movements, and many in the liberal wing of Orthodoxy, argue for a new approach, for an opening up of conversion policy to enable a maximum number of these immigrants to become Jewish. We tend to see this as the inclusive, welcoming good guys against the medieval, narrow-minded bad guys. It seems to me, though, that we are sidestepping the classic dilemma of Zionism: if Judaism is a nationality, then why do non-believing, non-religious people have to go through a process of religious study and a religious ceremony in order to join the nation? How is it not hypocritical for totally non-observant Jews to demand that the gate of entry into the Jewish people be religious conversion? On the other hand, the alternative – allowing the continuing growth of the proportion of Israelis who are not Jewish (these immigrants, naturalized foreign workers, Palestinian Arabs) will lead to a widening separation between “Israeli” and “Jewish” identities, bringing us back to that same nagging question:”What is Jewish about this state, anyway?”

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