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How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?

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Author Topic: How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?  (Read 947 times)
Tovah Silverstein
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« on: March 04, 2008, 01:22:21 am »

Denominational rules are only part of the story. In much of the world, Jewish identity has become fluid, part ethnicity, part religion, a matter of choice. “In the United States and also in Western Europe there are many kinds of Jews,” Prof. Menachem Friedman, a Bar-Ilan University sociologist of religion, told me. “People can change religions and identities quickly.” But in Israel, belonging has practical consequences: The 1950 Law of Return grants every Jew the right to immigration. In 1970, the Knesset defined the term “Jew” as meaning “one who was born to a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism.” That was a partial victory for those demanding traditional religious criteria. But to keep the door open to those who didn’t fit that definition, the amendment also granted the right of immigration to the child, grandchild or spouse of a Jew. Each time religious parties sought to go further and define conversion by Orthodox rules, Sarna recounts, “American Jewry would go into crisis mode,” its leaders insisting that Israel couldn’t delegitimize the non-Orthodox denominations.

In 1986, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the Interior Ministry’s Population Registry to list Shoshana Miller, a Reform convert from America, as Jewish on her ID card. The ultra-Orthodox interior minister resigned in protest. In practice, though, the rabbinate paid scant attention to ID cards. Couples registering to marry were asked to bring two witnesses who could testify that the applicants were Jews under Orthodox law. The two arms of the state, secular and religious, operated according to separate rules.

And in the rabbinate, power was shifting to the ultra-Orthodox — the wing of Judaism that segregates itself from the surrounding society and culture. In the early years of the state, those serving in the rabbinate generally identified with the project of building a Jewish state and felt a connection with secular Jews. Politics changed that. Thirty years ago, ultra-Orthodox parties held 5 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Today, they hold 18. Secular politicians need their support to build a stable coalition government. One way to gain it is to back ultra-Orthodox candidates for rabbinic posts. It is one of the stranger alliances that politics can create: the secular politicians regard “Jewish” mainly as a nationality, an ethnic identity that includes both believers and nonbelievers. For the rabbis they have empowered, “Jewish” is exclusively a religious category, and secular Jews are at best estranged cousins.

The true Era of Mistrust began in the 1990s, with the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union. A semiclandestine agency called Nativ (Route) was responsible for checking whether would-be immigrants qualified under the Law of Return. To establish Jewish identity, the agency scrutinized Soviet documents.

At the state rabbinate, marriage registrars adopted their own policy of doubt. Increasingly, rabbinate clerks sent anyone not born in Israel, or whose parents weren’t married in Israel, to a rabbinic court to prove that he or she was Jewish. Rabbi Osher Ehrentreu, the official at the rabbinic courts responsible for checking Jewish status, can’t name a date for the change, which apparently emerged without an explicit decision. The courts sought the same kind of documents as Nativ did, like birth certificates of the applicant’s mother and maternal grandmother listing them as Jews.

The traditional willingness to trust a person who said he was Jewish, Ehrentreu asserts, presumed that no one had anything to gain by it. Today, he told me, there are ulterior motives — to be able to leave another country and come to Israel, “to be recognized here as Jewish, to be able to get married.” That is, Israel’s prosperity, its attractiveness to immigrants, is now a reason for doubt.

Friedman, the reigning academic expert on ultra-Orthodox society in Israel, suggests that the deeper reasons for doubt are difficult for the rabbis to articulate. In contrast to Orthodox Jews like Farber, the ultra-Orthodox have little sense of risk that by raising doubts they might exclude a person who is really Jewish. “If you don’t keep the Torah and the commandments, O.K., so I excluded you. In any case you weren’t a complete Jew,” is how Friedman explains the attitude.

The policy of suspicion is applied to all immigrants. Rabbi Rasson Arussi, chairman of the Chief Rabbinate’s committee on marriage, told me that “populations where there is doubt about Jewishness” include those from Western countries, specifically “the sectors connected to Reform Jews.” The rabbinate’s expectations, however, are a poor fit with the United States. American Jews generally don’t have government papers testifying to their Jewishness. While a British Jew might turn to his country’s chief rabbinate for certification that he is Jewish, the very idea of a chief rabbi sounds outlandish in the United States.

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