Monday, December 04, 2006


Here is a proposition I fully endorse:

Bill would recognize Judaism through father

By Shahar Ilan

A bill to recognize as Jewish those in Israel with a Jewish father and a process of secular conversion will be discussed today by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. Meretz-Yahad Chairman MK Yossi Beilin proposed the bill, which is the first time a political party has sought to intervene in the question of who is a Jew in this way, and he says he believes the committee will vote it down. Beilin's bill would amend the registration law for the Population Registry and for identity cards, but has no effect on the Law of Return, granting of citizenship or immigrant benefits. The proposal states that "for the purposes of the Population Registry Law and all registration or legal certificate," an individual will be considered Jewish if at least one of his or her parents is Jewish or he or she joined the Jewish religion in a religious process or has joined the Jewish people in a non-religious process and has linked his or her fate with the Jewish people, and is not a member of another religion."

Beilin says the amendment will mean that 300,000 Jews from the CIS who at present are not considered Jewish will be able to register as Jews is they so desire. "In a world of DNA, it is so old-fashioned to talk about a chain of motherhood," says Beilin. If people see themselves as Jewish, and certainly if one of the parents was Jewish, he adds, why should the state define them as not Jewish?" Beilin's bill does not change the present situation, but rather would anchor in law a series of High Court rulings on the matter. Beilin's idea of secular conversion, which he first raised in 1999, involves joining the Jewish people by means of activities in the Jewish community and maintaining a Jewish lifestyle. Committees would be established to determine what demands would be made of those who wished to join the Jewish people, Beilin proposes, "such as elementary knowledge of Hebrew and checking there are no extraneous interests." Beilin said the central consideration in accepting people to Judaism by means of secular conversion would be a family tie to Jews.

Though, unfortunately, it is not likely to pass, at this point in time, it is a good formulation that people mull over and consider seriously. I am mindful of the fact that such proposition will be mightily opposed by religious parties in Israel and elsewhere. However, in my opinion, it is absolutely essential, for the future thriving of Judaism, to correct the Halachic law that determines who is a Jew. Since, as Beilin says, at the age of DNA, the rationale for matrilineal affiliation is no longer valid or necessary, and since cultural and other historical compulsions have rendered the Jewish definition insufficient. Suppose that Israel was formally already in existence during Nazi times and its Law of Return applied only to those who could produce proof of a Jewish mother. Would that mean that all those deemed Jewish by the Nazis, going back 8 generations, would have been ineligible for immigration to Israel? The fact that there are 300,000 Israelis from Russia who are now in Israel due to their Jewish affiliation yet are not recognized as such by religious authorities (and consequently, by certain secular authorities) creates an untenable tension between the civil idea of what makes a person Jewish and the religious law which opposes it.

It is also untenable to insist all these people, who have grown up in some sort of a Jewish identity, to undergo orthodox conversion, or even a reformist conversion. It seems like an excessive demand to be made upon people who are probably very little interested in the religious aspect of Judaism and feel Jewish by virtue of shared history and core moral values.

I found that Judaism is very difficult to live down, even after conversion or total assimilation, as we can see in the case of conversos in Spain and voluntary conversion for social convenience in nineteenth century Germany. Heinrich Heine, almost as soon as he converted, began to write about Jews extensively. Famous conversos like Luis de Leon, Cervantes and Montaigne have preserved in their writings much of the universal values that define Jewish ethos. Even when all aspects of ritual Judaism have gone from their life and education, some kernel of the essential identity remained.

Why would Judaism, in its nearly extinct condition, want to do away with these precious remains, due to an ancient law of belonging which is no longer even required?

It appears to me that both the interests of the individuals whose status is considered doubtful and of general Jewery converge here. People who genuinely feel like Jews need to be able to join easily. It's a human right of self-determination (somewhat problematic, I agree, but that's a different discussion). And Jewery will benefit by growing and expanding its ranks. Very important, in my opinion.


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