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Thursday 23 August 2007

Who is a Jew?

Who is a Jew?
By Dan Ben-David
The question of "who is a Jew?" has been debated since Israel attained
statehood. It is a fundamental question for matters of citizenship and
marriage here. But as with many other issues, the emphasis is not always
on the primary essence of the question: We deal with matters of
quantity, rather than quality. Even if we manage to solve the issue of
quantity, and we find a way to integrate hundreds of thousands of olim
who are not Jewish according to halacha - and Jews abroad find a way to
slow the rate of assimilation in their communities - we will still be
left with the issue of quality.

What will be the nature of the State of Israel in another generation or
two? Democracy is a necessary but insufficient condition. There are
currently three main alternatives struggling to define the nature of
Judaism here. Should no changes be forthcoming, each one will bring
about the end of Israel as the home of the Jewish people.

The first alternative is the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi). Is this the flag
that could or should unite us? On the one hand, it could be argued that
their uncompromising traditions may be the only glue that can prevent
widespread assimilation, as seen in Diaspora communities. On the other
hand, this population has produced no significant uprising against its
rampant shirking of the draft in a country facing clear and present
existential threats. It also has produced no large-scale, organized
dissension against a leadership that prevents its grade-school students
from receiving a core curriculum necessary to survive and thrive in a
modern economy and society. Is this the enlightened Judaism that
continues the path of Maimonides, who was one of our greatest rabbis -
and also a physician?
The second alternative, that of the Orthodox Jews who serve in the army
and work for a living, could have been the bridge between the modern
world and traditional Judaism. These are observant Jews who excel in
furthering Israel's society and economy. But where is the massive group
organizing to save this population from a leadership with selective
democratic principles when it comes to settling the whole of the Land of
Israel, a leadership with no compunctions against encouraging its
soldiers to rebel against orders not to its liking - even at the cost of
fostering a behavioral cancer in the army that could rapidly spread to
other parts of society that object to various policies of the elected
The third alternative trying to define Israel's Jewish character is that
of the secular Jews. This is the Israeli version of the modern secular
world. However, what added value does secular Judaism offer future
generations, so that they will choose to remain in the Jewish state, and
risk their lives and those of their children to preserve this nation?
What kind of thread could bind sabras, who are strangers to synagogues,
with their brothers abroad - be they Orthodox, Conservative or Reform -
who are unfamiliar with a Judaism unconnected to the temple?

These three alternatives in their current forms - individually and as a
group - represent a dead end for the Jewish state. If this country does
not learn to separate between religion and politics - which corrupts
religion - we will find it extremely difficult to create another
alternative, where pluralism, defining the future character of Judaism,
could flourish.

The author teaches economics in the Department of Public Policy at Tel
Aviv University.


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