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'Who is a Jew' Matters in Israel

By Sheldon L. Richman, Washington Report March 1990, Page 10

Most Americans miss the point of the who is a Jew?" controversy raging again in Israel. This old debate has come alive with two 1989 Israeli Supreme Court decisions. First, contrary to the position of the ruling Orthodox authorities, the court held that Jews converted by Conservative and Reform rabbis are to be recognized as real Jews. Then, late in the year, the court ruled that Messianic Jews, who practice Judaism but also believe in the divinity of Jesus are, despite their profession, Christians and thus do not qualify as Jews in the eyes of the state.

The debate masks a monumental issue that many outside Israel underestimate. After all, in what other country-in what other "democracy" especially-are religious qualifications an official matter?

In Israel, qualifications are an official matter because the country is a Jewish state. Those words, "Jewish state," are usually misinterpreted as a humanitarian issue, even by Jews. Until World War II, Jews in the US were largely uninterested in Israel and Zionism. They did not see themselves as exiled from the "Promised Land" and they did not seek a "return," despite a major effort to get them to think that this was their destiny. Things changed in the 1940s with Hitler's "final solution," and American Jews became devout supporters of Israel. But they largely saw it as a safe haven for Europe's uprooted and brutalized Jews, not as a place for American Jews to "return." For them, America was still Zion.

Not a Refuge, But a Promise

Because the murderous Nazi actions were the source of their support for Israel, most American Jews still see that state as primarily a humanitarian entity, a place where Jewish refugees will always be accepted and kept safe. Israel's founders, however, repeatedly said that Israel is not primarily a haven for refugees, but rather a fulfillment of God's promise to all Jews. The state claims to speak not only for the Jews living in Israel, but for all Jews no matter where they live.

This is the source of the "who is a Jew?" controversy. Israel was established as a Jewish state not in the sense that the laws of the Old Testament or the Talmud constitute the civil law, but in the sense that it is a state of, by, and for the Jewish people (conceived by some Jews as a distinct race, contrary to all evidence). This secular notion of the Jewish state has long been troublesome. At first, anyone who claimed to be a Jew was considered a Jew. This suited most Israeli Jews, who were and are secular. But it dissatisfied the minority of religious Jews. The definition later was changed to include only people whose mothers were Jewish and people who converted to Judaism.

This led to the question of whether conversions performed by Conservative and Reform rabbis would count. To the secular Jews governing the state, it was no problem. But to the Orthodox rabbis it was critical because their authority was at stake. They have long wanted only Orthodox conversions recognized. (The ruling against them was coupled with one that undoubtedly delighted the rabbinate. The court said that only Orthodox rabbis could perform weddings. There is no civil marriage in Israel.)

The debate is not just a matter of obscure religious doctrine. Jews from anywhere in the world can come to Israel and immediately become citizens, entitling them to services provided by a nominally private organization that acts as an agent of the state. This right is not available to non-Jews. Obviously, if the Law of Return is to have any meaning, there must be a way to distinguish Jews from non-Jews.

Citizenship vs. Nationality

Each Israeli must carry an identity card, which has a line indicating "nationality." One would think that an Israeli citizen would have the word "Israeli" on that line. Not so. The nationality of any Jew is "Jew;" the national of an Israeli Arab-even one who has lived for decades in, say, Jaffa-is "Arab." In 1970 a Jewish human rights activist tried to challenge this practice by asking the Interior Ministry to change his registration to Israeli. It refused and the Supreme Court upheld the decision. The court stated that "There is no Israeli nation separate from the Jewish people."

Where does that leave Israelis who are non-Jews or not recognized as Jews by the state? On its face it implies second-class citizenship for someone.

If the Orthodox rabbis get their way, many people now regarded as Jews will be excluded from full civil rights in Israel. That would be bad. But what of the people who never have had the same rights as those extended to Jews, namely, the Palestinians living in Israel?

Israel is a state-socialist country; the government owns much of the economy.Thus, to be a non-Jew has countless practical disadvantages - Over 90 percent of the land is held by the state. Precious water resources and electrical power are controlled by the state. As in any socialist country, politicians ultimately decide who gets what.

Since Israel is a state of, by, and for the Jewish people, the resources primarily benefit Jews. Arabs are taxed like Jews, but they do not have the same access to resources as Jews. The land held by the state may not be sold or leased to Arabs. Arab villages and farms do not get the same quality of services-electrical, water, and so on-as Jewish towns and farms. Arab farmers in Israel are not free to sell their produce directly to buyers outside the country. (Only threats of retaliation against Israeli products by the European Community persuaded the authorities to let Arabs in the occupied territories export directly.)

The Arabs of Israel are like serfs in a socialist state run for the benefit of someone else.

The Arabs of Israel are like serfs in a socialist state run for the benefit of someone else. They can have representatives in the Knesset, but they can't change the system.

It is important to understand the essential relationship between socialism and Israel as it has existed since 1948. Were Israel to adopt free-market capitalism, as some American economists urge, the state's character would change radically. If all land and industry were privately owned, free trade practiced and the government limited to a neutral referee, the country, by definition, could not discriminate. Equal rights and the rule of law are hallmarks of capitalism. There is no second-class citizenship in the free market. This point is more radical than it may appear at first: Israel's "fundamental laws" are incompatible with the distinctive Western political philosophy and tradition known as classical liberalism.

Israel can either maintain the status quo, including the socialism that is sinking its economy into an abyss and causing significant emigration, or give up socialism and adopt capitalism, in which case it would no longer discriminate against non-Jews. Few Israelis want to face this choice. But, like it or not, the need to choose is something about which they haveno choice.

Sheldon L. Richman is an author in the Washington, DC, area who writes about the Middle East.

(c) Copyright 1995-1999, American Educational Trust. All Rights Reserved.

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