Israel’s Challenge With Jewish Identity

Religious Zionists in Israel recognize the importance of dealing with its Jewish identity, since about 4,000 babies are born into families each year that identify themselves as Jewish, but are not acknowledged as such under Israel’s religious law.

By Prof. Asher Cohen


Sometime over the last decade, while I was conducting research on immigrants to Israel who are not considered Jewish according to religious law, I received an invitation to a circumcision ceremony. It was a standard invitation, the kind that is pre-made by the event hall, with blank spaces that are filled in with personal details. At the top right corner was the Hebrew acronym for “With God’s help,” which commonly appears on religious documents.

Jewish Brit [Illustrative] – Photo: Lior Mizrahi

I went to the ceremony, where the newborn boy’s name was announced as Yaniv. An important detail: Yaniv, who is 100% Israeli and was born to parents who immigrated from the Ukraine, is not Jewish according to the Halachah, or Jewish law. His father, Sasha, is Jewish, but he is not — this is because Marina, his mother, is not Jewish according to religious law, which refers to matrilineal descent to determine religion.

It did not even occur to the couple not to have a traditional circumcision ceremony for their son. Marina was raised Jewish, and in the Ukraine, she was considered a Jew.

Yaniv is not alone. Each year, some 4,000 babies are born in the same situation, and are entered into the population registry as having no religion. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics labels them under the thought-provoking title “others,” which now refers to some 350,000 people. The issue of the identity of these “others” is one of the top challenges facing Jewish society in Israel and is the basis of the conversion debate.

Thousands of Israeli soldiers share Yaniv’s status. At the national level, hundreds of thousands of people are not Jewish according to the Halachah — but they feel Jewish, and they identify as Jewish and as belonging to the Jewish nation.

A crack in the strictest interpretation

The challenge of expanding Jewish national identity in Israel mostly interests religious Zionists. Secular people do not have much room to act on the issue, as conversion is a religious issue with clear halachic dimensions.

For the ultra-Orthodox, the fact that Israel brought in hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish immigrants is a problem related to Zionism, and not one for which they should have to provide religious solutions. As long as the ultra-Orthodox approach controls the institutions run by the Chief Rabbinate, conversion will not be not a top priority. In this situation, the strictest reading of the religious law governs conversion policy, which prevents conversion at the scope necessary to deal with the challenge.

On the spectrum between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular are the religious Zionists,who cannot shirk responsibility by saying this issue belongs to Zionists. There has been change to the conversion system with the proliferation of religious Zionist rabbis; but many conversions are dictated by the strict rules of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

That, for example, is how an Ashdod rabbinical court judge nullified the conversions performed by Rabbi Haim Drukman and those under him. Drukman had been appointed to help modernize the Israeli Conversions Court. The Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem upheld the ruling. Drukman’s conversion court was officially disqualified.

The announcement regarding the establishment of an independent courts network must be regarded along with two separate disputes in the religious Zionist community: The dispute over the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and the halachic dispute over conversion. Those against the independent courts feel indebted to the rabbinate. From their point of view, the rabbinate represents the legitimate connection between religion and state, and if it is not working properly, the issues should be addressed from within, rather than with outward opposition. On the other hand, with the scope of conversions remaining so narrow for so long, those who created independent courts felt they could not wait any longer. For them, the conversion challenge is more important than the rabbinate’s status,

Those who have established individual courts believe that there are halachic ways to deal with the conversion challenge. For example, one is supposed to make conversion easier for people who have Jewish roots, as Rabbi Haim Amsalem wrote in his book “Zera Yisrael” (“The Seed of Israel”). Without conversion, Israel will be characterized by intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, as immigrants to Israel are an integral part of society. The key logic touted by supporters of dealing with the conversion challenge is that taking a tough stance on conversion will ultimately translate to taking a soft stance on assimilation.

Regardless of whether this process succeeds in the future, this is an important milestone. From now on, there will no longer be submission to the strict haredi approach, and there will be a Zionist halachic approach, which fundamentally understands the importance of dealing with Israel’s Jewish identity challenge.


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