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Who is a Jew? Who decides, who is a Jew?

The answer to the second question, at least in Israel, is the state-sanctioned, orthodox-controlled rabbinate.

So why am I suddenly concerned with this monumental question?

The answer is that I am not. However, my interest was peaked following a recent article I read, I believe in the Jerusalem Post, about a woman here in Israel, that 30 years after her wedding, which was approved by an orthodox rabbi, she and her children are suddenly declared not Jewish.

I can’t find the JP story but here is a link to the same story supplied via another source, the Israeli Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ): “Rabbinic Court revokes Jewishness of 3-generation family’’ -

While the complete article needs to be read in full, the following four paragraphs from the CWJ outline the crux of the issue:

“CWJ’s latest case: 30 years ago, Yulia* left the former Soviet Union and made aliyah to Israel. She met a man, got engaged, and went to register for marriage at the Rabbinate. Following a comprehensive “Jewishness investigation”--which even included phone calls to her mother in Yiddish--the Tiberius State Rabbinic Court declared that she was Jewish. They married, had two daughters and lived happily ever after. Almost.”

“The daughters, Anna* and Lena*, grew up and they, too, eventually registered for marriage at the Rabbinate. Both underwent Jewishness investigations and both were re-affirmed as Jewish.”

“In 2016, Anna found herself in the midst of an acrimonious divorce at the Ashdod Rabbinic Court. During one of the hearings, her husband yelled out, ‘She’s not Jewish!’”

‘’In a normal world, the rabbinic court would recognize the outburst for what it was: a baseless accusation by a vengeful husband with a vested interest in hurting his wife in a divorce hearing. But instead of throwing out his claim, or even asking him for any proof to back it up, the rabbinic court decided that this was sufficient reason to open yet another Jewishness investigation against her.’’

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

I have written, both here on this blog, and elsewhere about my disdain for religion. It’s easy to understand the agreement that religion was invented by man to control man, his thoughts, his actions. And the above is a prime example of that.

Growing up in the UK, I thought of myself as a UK citizen who was Jewish, as opposed to a UK citizen who was say, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or whichever deity they follow.

Yet here in Israel, nationality seems so often to take second place to religion. Why is that?

Someone who I have, and I like to think, a special relationship with when asked by me if he Jewish first or Israeli first, replied forcefully that he is Jewish first. OK, so this guy was born into a religious family here in Israel and over the years has become more religious. For him, religion is the prime mover. And yet, when I pressed him about living in another country as a practicing Jew, he was adamant that only in Israel can a Jew feel free to follow his beliefs.

Yet those beliefs are governed by a state-approved orthodox rabbinical board. What about those who wish to follow our paths of Judaism? What about the ultra-orthodox Haredim, many of whom do not recognize the state rabbinical authorities because they not strict enough on their adherence to Judaism?

It’s a question I often pose to my (mature) English students; are you first a Jew or are you first an Israeli – they can’t both be #1.

The students from a more traditional background, often in outlook Sephardi, think Jew first. Those from a secular background, often Ashkenazi think Israeli first.

I recall some 30 maybe even 40 years ago, a case of an Israeli army officer I believe, partitioning the high court in Jerusalem to have the notation ‘religion’ removed from Israeli ID cards. He was not successful. In 2008, I think, following a high court ruling regarding conversions to Judaism made outside of Israel which the then ministry of the interior, Eli Ishay, disagreed with, Ishay ordered the removal of the ‘religion’ notation on Israeli ID cards.

It is generally accepted that a child’s religion follows the mother and nationality of the father. I have no issue with being considered Jewish however, for me, my nationality, Israeli, is far more important.

Israel will never embrace secularism, regretfully. There will never be a division of ‘church and state’ – i.e., a natural division between the religion of the country and the state, and state institutions. Israel, like many Islamic countries, has religion at its very core. State and religion, religion, and state can not be split.

Sometimes, I wonder if I was sold an idea in 1968 before coming to Israel, without fully understanding or appreciating what exactly I was buying into. Today, feeling as I do, I am not sure that I would relocate to Israel, given my disdain for religion and what it stands for. Back in 1968, I did not know better, and to be fair, that first year on a secular kibbutz, I was isolated from mainstream Israel.

And of course, in the ensuing years, Israel has become more conservative, has moved further to the right. The ultra-orthodox/Haridim hold and enjoy more power, more influence than ever before. For the likes of Litzman, Gafni, and Deri, nothing short of an orthodox way of life is acceptable. Adding to the mix we have a so-called modern orthodox advocate, Bezalel Smotrich, who openly touts a return to biblical law and customs. It would appear that Naftali Bennett, also a modern orthodox advocate is maybe, due to his upbringing, worldview, and business dealings, at least on paper, more open to the meshing of all streams of Judaism and the secular community. Time will tell if this is indeed the case, should he succeed in becoming prime minister of Israel.

I am in awe of friends and colleagues who can embrace religion. Me, I can’t see it. The Bible, both old and new, is a series of stories, fairy tales if you will, handed down, added to until someone decided to write them down. How can we be sure that the events described really took place in the manner portrayed? The Land of Israel is teaming with archeological and historical finds, no agreement there. And these finds readily support the existence of various Jewish and Christian communities, occupying armies, going back thousands of years. What to me at least, they do not do, is support the religious aspect of the Bible stories.

How can rabbis and others disregard scientific evidence that the planet we inhabit is some four billion years old? We know for a fact that dinosaurs and similar species lived between about 245 and 66 million years ago. It is a proven fact that we, humans, are members of the order of placental mammals, known as primates. Homo Sapiens, that’s us, have evolved from hominoids; we are the sole remaining example of hominins.

It is also a proven fact that our ancestors, Homo Erectus, started to move out of Africa approximately two million years ago. Proof has been found that tribes of hunter/gathers settled in the region that we know today as the Euphrates River Valley approximately 1.2 million years ago.

So we come back to the question of who is a Jew? And who decides who is a Jew?

The discussion or maybe the argument continues.


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