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Who is a Jew? – A New Twist on the Old Question

Growing up in a kibbutz, we were never bothered by that question, and the fast rhythm of life never stopped for one minute in order to contemplate its implications. We were too busy with living, with studying and working the land, and with building the new country. Most of all, though, we were all Israelis: the only religion was working the land, and building the dream of a new society. It was the “Age of Genius,” as the writer Bruno Schulz had written, before a Gestapo officer shot him to death. All of us in the kibbutz were Jews by birth, most of us sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors, and we considered ourselves – far and foremost – as Israelis. In other words: we were Israelis first, Jews second.

But going to the army and then leaving the kibbutz to the big city, this question kept coming up at me from different directions, and at different times and forums. Especially at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, where – in order to survive – the various governments always relied on the religious parties to sustain them in power, and therefore left them alone to determine “Who is a Jew.” Which, according to them, was what the Halacha said: “A person is matrilineally a Jew by birth, or becomes one through conversion to Judaism.” In other words, to be a Jew one had to be born to a Jewish mother, or to be converted. However, this conversion could only be performed and accepted according to the Halacha (the oldest normative definition used by Jews for self-identification). As late as last year Knesset members had tried to pass a law not recognizing conversions done here in America by rabbis belonging to the conservative and reform movements, raising the wrath, and rightly so, of Jewish people here in America.

And here comes Yoram Kaniuk, one of the most respected and honored of Israeli writers. As reported in Haaretz on May 15 by Mazal Mualem, “The author Yoram Kaniuk is expected to ask the Tel Aviv District Court this morning to order the Interior Ministry to permit him to ‘leave the Jewish religion’ by altering his entry under the heading ‘religion’ in the Population Registry. Kaniuk wants any official state document on which he appears as “Jewish” to be changed to ‘Without Religion.’ An earlier request to the Interior Ministry was turned down and Kaniuk explains in his petition that he does not wish to be part of a ‘Jewish Iran’ or belong to ‘what is today called the religion of Israel.’ Kaniuk, 81, would like to equate his standing to that of his 10-month-old grandchild, who is registered as ‘Without Religion’ at the Population Registry.”

It goes on to explain that “The unusual request by Kaniuk, one of the more important and prolific authors of the War of Independence generation, from the court, so close to the date commemorating Israel’s independence, reflects his continued revulsion at the way the Jewish religion has lately rebelled against the values of the Declaration of Independence.” Which is exactly the point, and bring to the forefront the problem this cardinal, if problematic question had always presented to the majority of Israelis, who defined themselves as secular.

Because, you see, while the separation of religion and state was always a cornerstone of Israel since the Declaration of Independence, it nonetheless bogged down Israeli life, Israeli politics and citizens since then. You have to go through seven cycles of burning in hell before a normal citizen would be approved as a Jew sometimes, before you can get married or divorced. We Jews, it seems to me, practice a religion of seclusion, not inclusion. One does understand that, to an extent, retaining and keeping the heritage of the old biblical tradition. But it also goes against the grain of modern life, of Israel as a melting pot; we’re left swimming against the stream.

It beyond my power, and my aim here, to solve the riddle of “Who is a Jew.” And yet what I do know with some degree of certainty, and what I always believed to be true, is that you are a Jew if you feel a Jew. It’s a feeling deep inside you of belonging to the shared history, culture and religion – yes, religion – of this great Nation of the Jews, more than anything else. No piece of stamped paper can ever repudiate that. If you feel a Jew, as far as I’m concerned, you are a Jew!

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