Commentary Magazine


The Shalit Case

But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.

Yes, says Bloom.

What is it? says John Wyse.

A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.

By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.

So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:

Or also living in different places.

James Joyce, Ulysses

The Jews, one hardly needs to be reminded, are a historical anomaly. People, religious confession, nation, ethnic group, culture, race—all these rubrics have been variously applied to them, each with a certain degree of evident justification, none ever really adequate to describe the bewildering historical phenomenon of a people that is also a religion (or alternately, a religion that is also a people), constituting a ghostly vestige of a past sovereign state and the potential citizenry of a new one, even as it continues “living in different places.” Since the Enlightenment, with the proliferation of ideologies of Jewish existence, Jews themselves have added considerably to the intrinsic historical confusion by often insisting, according to the particular glare or flicker of their various ideological lights, that one and only one of these rubrics should be applied to them, that all the others were a horror and an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, or of right reason, or of progressive social consciousness. It is not surprising, then, that the re-establishment of a Jewish state should focus and compound the anomaly of Jewish identity, bringing together all the tensions implicit in the historical paradox, providing a public forum for their collision. I am increasingly skeptical whether in our lifetime any agency, group, or individual in Israel will even begin to find a generally satisfactory answer to the question, “Who is a Jew?,” but it seems to be an inner necessity of Israeli society to wrestle with this question continually and to thrash it out in public once every few years. Because the facts of Israel’s national existence are peculiar, such an impulse to self-definition is understandable and in a way even commendable. The forms, however, which the debate takes are often so absurd or so deplorable that one is tempted to view the whole phenomenon in anthropological terms as a national rite of self-abasement Israelis feel compelled to carry out once every five years or so, during which license is given to political, religious, and intellectual leaders to display their full capacity for mental rigidity, moral obtuseness, alarmist rhetoric, hypocrisy, or plain silliness.

Before I go into the details of the current controversy, some background information may be helpful. Although Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights for all its citizens, without distinction of creed, race, or sex,” Israeli law does in fact make one important practical distinction between Jews and others. Since the state is avowedly conceived not as an end in itself but as the instrument of the Jewish people, a permanent place of refuge and protection for Jews all over the world, any Jew, according to the 1950 Law of Return, has the right to immigrate together with special economic privileges, tax exemptions, and housing aid, during the period of his absorption. (Gentile immigrants are by no means discouraged, but they must undergo a period of naturalization, and they do not have the same initial advantages.)

Now, the Law of Return presupposes that we know, at least legally, who is a Jew, but problems can arise in cases of mixed marriages, apostates from Judaism, or dubious converts to Judaism. The first great public debate on legal Jewish identity took place in 1958 over the question of whether in mixed marriages where the wife was gentile—many such couples had come to Israel from Poland in 1956—the children could be registered as Jews. (The unambigous halakhic ruling on mixed marriages has always been that the child is considered to follow the religion of the mother.) At the time of the controversy, the Minister of the Interior was a member of Ahdut Ha-avoda, a secularist, moderate-left labor party, and he ruled that anyone could be listed in his identity papers as a Jew simply by virtue of his own declaration, or, in the case of minors, that of his parents. In the subsequent uproar the National Religious party left the government coalition, and intermittent but often acrimonious debate on the issue continued until 1960, when a compromise was reached in which the portfolio of Minister of the Interior was given to the National Religious party and a regulation was issued that the religion of such minors would not be identified in their registration papers. Thus, the Orthodox prevented the promulgation of any registration directives that would directly contravene the Halakhah, but no law was passed making it obligatory to use the halakhic definition of a Jew for registering Jews in civil documents.

This last point is especially important for following the two subsequent disputes because the relation between civil and religious law in Israel is often misunderstood by outside observers, the more ignorant of whom actually imagine Israel as a “theocracy.” Israelis distinguish between hok (secular law) and Halakhah (religious law), and the firm underlying assumption of their legal system is that the state is a medinat hok, governed by a secular law which is enacted by an elected legislature, the Knesset, to be adjudicated by secular, not rabbinic, courts. The Halakhah can become binding upon all Israeli citizens only in specifically delimited areas where the Knesset, by its own legislative action, decides to make the Halakhah the law of the land. The one important—for many, notorious—area where this has actually occurred is in the laws of marriage and divorce: there is no civil marriage in Israel, and all Jewish citizens who seek marriage or divorce within Israeli borders must comply with the procedures and regulations of the Orthodox rabbinate. In the matter of Jewish identity, although the Ministry of the Interior after 1960 was in the hands of an Orthodox Jew, he was not empowered, without supporting legislation from the Knesset, to make the halakhic standards binding in listing citizens on their identity cards as Jews, and this fact will be important to keep in mind in relation to the most recent test case.

Meanwhile, in 1962 the Israeli Supreme Court was confronted with an inverted version of the question, “Who is a Jew?” in the case of Brother Daniel, the Carmelite monk born of Jewish parents who still considered himself a member of the Jewish people, despite his conversion, and who therefore petitioned to be accepted as a citizen not through naturalization but by virtue of the Law of Return. The interesting paradox in the Brother Daniel case is that by halakhic standards he was still a Jew, since Judaism, like Catholicism, recognizes conversion into but not out of the faith: in the classic rabbinic formulation, “A Jew, even if he has sinned, remains a Jew” (Sanhedrin 44a). The Court, however, decided that in the plain-language, secular use of the term, Brother Daniel could not be considered a Jew, because he had separated himself from the historical community of Israel through his conversion to Catholicism. The clear implication of this decision was that, for civil purposes, the question of who is a Jew could be dealt with by secular courts without reference to halakhic standards. Instructively, the Orthodox groups acquiesced in the decision, presumably because it was a matter of excluding a dubious Jew rather than including one: in all these disputes, it is of course true that the Orthodox sincerely want to maintain absolute fidelity to what they conceive as an eternal, unchanging law, but I think one can also detect an uneasy, perhaps even fearful, psychology of separatism in their attitude both to the traditional law and to the most pressing facts of historical change in which Israel is so crucially involved.

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As a general rule-of-thumb, I would suggest that the “historical” implications of these recurrent debates on who is a Jew are far more limited than their participants like to imagine, and if there is anything of significance to be learned from them, it is about the mentality of the debaters and the nature of what might be called the politics of culture in Israel. To see how this principle may operate in the most recent controversy, it will be necessary first to sort out the essential facts. Binyamin Shalit, a career officer in the Israeli navy, a native of Haifa, and the son of Jewish parents, is married to a Scottish woman of Christian descent who has settled with him in Haifa (though she has not become an Israeli citizen), where she has borne him two children, a son and a daughter. Both children, as natives, are automatically Israeli citizens, but a question arises concerning their religious and ethnic identification. Before proceeding to the nature of Shalit’s difficulties and his appeal, another technical explanation, I am afraid, will be necessary. Israeli identity cards include two related items—religion and le’om (approximately: “national-ethnic group”). Le’om, a category that does not exist in the Halakhah, would seem to derive historically from similar categories on the internal passports of Russia and the old Austro-Hungarian empire, where such identification presumably had a certain usefulness because of the multi-national character of those states. Some Israelis argued for the removal of the le’om category back in the late 50’s, fearing it might be used to discriminate against Arab citizens, and at one point in the Shalit case, the Supreme Court suggested that the government eliminate the category because of its legal vagueness and doubtful utility, but the government has maintained that the category is necessary because it provides a convenient way of distinguishing between Arabs and Jews for security purposes. How true this is I am not in a position to ascertain, but with a variety of incidents of urban terrorism over the past two years involving Israeli Arabs, it would be presumptuous for an outsider to judge such matters.

Binyamin and Ann Shalit, who consider themselves atheists, had the religion entry in their children’s papers filled in with the word “none,” but when the local registrar, following the 1960 directive of the Minister of the Interior, wrote “no registration” under the category le’om, Shalit filed a legal protest, which eventually came before the Supreme Court. It was Shalit’s contention that since he and his wife were not religionists, he could not in good conscience ask her to convert and then have the children converted, as Halakhah would require; his children, however, were being raised with a strong sense of participation in the national-historical community of Jews, were certainly thought of as Jews by other Israelis, and hence had the right to be listed under the Jewish le’om on their identity cards. Shalit tried to illustrate the kind of contradictions involved in ignoring considerations of national consensus and common sense to define le’om by religious law only: he, for example, a career officer in the Israeli navy, could not register his children as Jews, while Kemal Nimri, one of the leaders of Al Fatah, would in principle be able to list himself as a Jew because his mother was Jewish. On January 23, 1970, the Supreme Court decided by a vote of five to four in favor of Shalit, and ordered the Minister of the Interior and the Haifa district registration clerk to register the le’om of the Shalit children as Jewish.

The manner in which the Court rendered its opinion in this case is itself instructive. The close vote suggests how deeply divided Israeli society in general is on these issues, though it must be added that of the four dissenting justices, only two, Silberg and Kister, explicitly stated that registration should definitely be in accordance with the Halakhah. Each of the nine justices felt called upon to render a detailed individual opinion, the collected opinions running to a book of 180 pages. The fundamental yet elusive character of the question of Jewish identity led these learned jurists to range in their discourse from sociology and history to philosophy and belles-lettres, drawing not only on Israeli legal precedents, but on a variety of rabbinic sources, and on a peculiar assortment of modern writers from Renan and Adam Mickiewicz to Ahad Ha-am, Yehezkel Kaufmann, and S. N. Eisenstadt.

Nevertheless, the majority justices went out of their way to stress that they were not considering the general question of who is a Jew—because it was a matter of ideological dispute not appropriate for the Court to take up and because the question itself was susceptible of too many interpretations and too many possible answers. Rather, insisted the majority justices, they were deciding on the limited technical question of who may be listed as a Jew under the category le’om on an identity card. This position was stated quite clearly and, I think, candidly, and it strikes me as a thoroughly correct position to have taken: if the meanings of being a Jew are multiple and ambiguous, all a court can reasonably do is try to answer the question of who is a Jew for the purposes of a given law, and neither logic nor the nature of composite legal systems precludes the possibility that someone who is a Jew for the purposes of one law may not be for the purposes of another. And especially because the category of le’om is intrinsically vague and has no halakhic status whatsoever, the reasoning of those who denounced the decision as a betrayal of all Jewish tradition looks suspiciously murky on a very basic point. I might add that since the reported rationale for retaining the somewhat dubious category le’om is a consideration of security, the meaning of the term ought to be construed not as national-ethnic group in the abstract, but national-ethnic group in relation to the question of security. In this practically defined context, there can be little doubt that, whatever the Halakhah says about who is a member of the Jewish people-faith, the le’om of Kemal Nimri would be Arab and the le’om of Binyamin Shalit’s children, Jewish. Moreover, in allowing the Shalit children into the civil community of Jews, the Court was acting in perfect consistency with its earlier decision to exclude Brother Daniel—that is, for the purposes of civil definition it again put aside halakhic criteria and used as a touchstone what amounts to a consensual or man-in-the-street notion of who should be allowed to call himself a Jew.1

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It is hard to see how the Supreme Court decision, carefully restricted as it was meant to be, could have had very far-reaching implications for future Jewish history, but in the hullabaloo that followed, the opponents of the decision chose to consider the justices’ claim that they were ruling only on a technical matter of registration as a transparent expression of bad faith. Thus, the Orthodox press shrieked to its readers in great black headlines, Court Ruling Murderous To Survival of People; and the National Religious party threatened to leave the government coalition if the Knesset did not immediately pass a law to cancel the effect of the Supreme Court decision. Though the Israeli Supreme Court enjoys immense prestige within the country—indeed, is the only branch of government that has continually evinced a high level of professional competence and integrity—it does not have the same powers as its American counterpart because there is no Israeli equivalent of the American system of checks and balances. Since Israel has no written constitution, the Court cannot very well declare a law unconstitutional, though it can abrogate any Knesset law that it considers to be a violation of one of the Knesset’s own, quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which remain limited in number and scope. (Symptomatically, one of the chief motives in the decision of Ben-Gurion and the Mapai majority to oppose a written constitution in the protracted debate over that question in 1949—50 was their fear of the necessity for codifying the relation between religion and state. Israelis, as that decision itself illustrates, seem to repeat almost ritually that they must avoid a Kulturkampf at all costs, and just as frequently, so it seems, they go through the first motions of such a struggle.)

Golda Meir’s government and the majority coalition in the Knesset acceded to the Orthodox demands with much of the grace and all of the celerity of a bridegroom brought to a shotgun wedding in the ninth month of the bride’s pregnancy. Political leaders, the Prime Minister herself among them, made emotional, not to say maudlin, speeches about the fateful dangers of tragically sundering the Jewish people; the Knesset bypassed its own procedures for promulgation, review, and multiple readings of new legislation, and in a matter of days passed a law that allayed the theological terrors of the National Religious party and kept it in the government coalition. As is generally true in parliamentary politics, the result was a somewhat muddled compromise that had the virtue of being no real disaster for either side in the controversy. Binyamin Shalit was allowed to register the le’om of his children as he wished. For the future, the law enjoined registration officials against listing a Jewish le’om for the children of mixed marriages where the mother was gentile.

The prohibitionary aspect, then, of the halakhic position had become the law of the land, though it is not quite correct to say, as many Israeli commentators did, that registration henceforth had to be strictly in accordance with the Halakhah, for, in that event, the child of a Christian mother would have to be listed according to the group of origin of the mother, while the legal directive is now again to put “no registration” in such cases. In compensation, anyone married to a Jew, and the children or even grandchildren of mixed marriages, are now entitled to enjoy all “the benefits accorded under the Law of Return, the Citizenship Law, and every other law which contains provisions for [Jewish] immigrants,” so that beyond the symbolic declaration of le’om all legal inequities pertaining to mixed marriages have been removed. The new law, moreover, recognizes conversions to Judaism performed abroad even when they are not done according to halakhic standards, and it urges the rabbinate to show more dispatch and flexibility in its own conversion procedures, though this last exhortation, in view of long-standing practices of the Israeli rabbinate, is at best quixotic, at worst a purely hypocritical gesture.2

A secularist could reasonably view this outcome as regrettable but hardly catastrophic, just as the original decision of the Supreme Court was hardly catastrophic for the halakhic Jew, whatever the outcry. In this case, the National Unity government had again succumbed needlessly to pressure from religious groups, thus allowing the Orthodox to impose their will on the majority of Israelis in a matter of principle though, it must be added, one of no great practical import, at least on the face of things. And the breakup of the present coalition, a consummation devoutly to be wished on other, more serious grounds, would of course make it possible to repeal the law by a simple majority vote of Knesset. To judge, however, by much of the comment on both sides of the dispute, nothing less than the historical survival of the Jewish people was at stake, on the one hand, or the survival of democratic institutions in Israeli society, on the other. Since it is my contention that what is most instructive in all this is the tenor of the debate, not its substance, I would like to offer a sampling of responses from both sides of the controversy.

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The rhetoric invoked on the Left to attack the government’s maneuver was predictable. I sometimes suspect that Israel has the oldest Left in the world still alive and kicking, in all senses of the word; the language of accusation, for example, of the newspaper Lamerhav (Ahdut Ha-avoda) is redolent of, say, the French Left circa 1890: “An utter defeat (the Supreme Court decision) served the religious camp as the base for a renewed assault, and in a few days the leaders of the National Religious party succeeded in advancing the process of the clericalization of the state in a way they had failed to do in the course of twenty years.” Somewhat more surprisingly, the influential paper Ha-aretz (independent, though generally pro-government) abandoned its usually circumspect, moderate editorial tone to announce with apocalyptic portentousness that “the Middle Ages were returning.” Ammon Rubinstein, a respected columnist and dean of the law school at Tel Aviv University, suggested sarcastically that if Mrs. Meir were really so concerned with discouraging intermarriage—she actually contended, in blithe disregard of the sociology and mentality of Diaspora Jews, that the Shalit decision would encourage them to intermarry—then she really ought to ban miscegenation in Israel, and if she had difficulty formulating the law, South Africa would provide her a handy model.

While the new legislation was still being debated in Knesset, the novelist, Yoram Kaniuk, married to an American gentile, pathetically announced in an open letter to Golda Meir that if the law were passed, he, and many like him, would be compelled to emigrate, “because [our] children would be deprived of first-class citizenship and would become objects of scorn and derision.” Concluding his plea with an allusion to the likely impact of the new law on world opinion of Israel, Kaniuk saw fit to speak in the following terms: “I doubt if others will always be ready to understand the audacity [in the original, chutzpah] of people who require the entire world to be enlightened while at home they permit themselves to be separatists, incorrigible fanatics, and promulgators of racist doctrines.”3

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Understandably, the rhetoric and logic of the anti-Shalit forces attained an even higher pitch of perturbation. These forces, by the way, were not limited to the Orthodox, but were, rather, a coalition of spokesmen for religion, Mapai faithfuls jumping nimbly to the whip of party discipline, and a variegated group of people I would describe as sentimental nationalists. The statements of most of the party faithfuls (for example, the editorials of Davar, the Mapai daily newspaper) were what one would have expected—a mindless, or cynical, mouthing of Mrs. Meir’s stated position, with much grave, vague talk about not encouraging assimilation, about avoiding a Kulturkampf and keeping the people together. Of the sentimental nationalists, the best example I have seen is a column by the poet, Natan Alterman (since deceased), in the independent afternoon daily, Maariv. After a series of somber reflections on the profundity of the issue being debated, which was nothing less than the cutting-off of the Jewish people from its historical origins, Alterman concluded with an invocation of Soviet Jewry’s tragic, heroic struggle for self-assertion. My translation deliberately reproduces the tortured syntax of the original sentence because this chaotic use of language on the part of a professional writer is itself evidence of the way sticky emotion gums up the function of normal rational processes in these debates.

When one tries to compare this struggle of young Jews in Russia—which is in essence a fateful awareness of origins and of profound and reawakening connections with their roots—with the struggle undertaken among us today to limit Jewish belonging to a sense of subjective attachment and to a “declaration in good faith,” in the end one must wonder whether at least the timing of this aspiration to impoverish the concept “Jew” of all content beyond the juridic-legalistic old-new Bundist-Leftist approach of Major Shalit and his supporters—at least the timing is not the most fortuitous.

How wildly all this misrepresents what was actually at issue should be self-evident (the characterization of Shalit’s orientation as “Bundist-Leftist” is particularly amusing); but Alterman’s use of Soviet Jewry as a rhetorical club against the Shalit supporters is ironic, for, as several commentators observed, the new Knesset law would, if anything, have a certain deterrent effect on Soviet Jews loyal to Israel. Among the untold numbers of such Jews, there are, predictably, many who are committed to being Jews though married to gentile women, and it might at least give them pause to think that if they could ever emigrate to Israel their children would not be officially recognized as Jews by ethnic nationality. In the last two and a half years of his life Alterman spent much of his energy promulgating the views of the Greater Israel group, and, at least in his case, there would seem to be a direct connection between the kind of nationalistic feeling that leads to territorial imperialism, on the one hand, and to exclusionist ethnic loyalty, on the other.4

“The taste of bathos,” Alexander Pope once wrote in his best high-ironic manner, “is implanted by Nature itself in the soul of man,” and one could hardly find better evidence for this assertion than when Jews enter into heated debate on who is a Jew. Predictably, the nadir of bathos in the Shalit controversy was reached when sentimental nationalism joined forces with religious fervor. After the new legislation was passed by the Knesset, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, the rabbi appointed to deal with religious matters affecting the Western Wall, and the father of a boy who died in the capture of the Wall, wrote a letter to Mrs. Meir, the text of which was reproduced in Maariv. The excesses of the rabbi have at least the sincerity of his feelings as a defense, while the cheap attempt of the reporter to cash in on patriotic sentimentalism is simply indefensible. Here is the last paragraph of the news item, as it appeared in Maariv.

Those who saw Rabbi Getz Friday morning at the Wall attest to the fact that he wrote the letter to Mrs. Golda Meir while wrapped in his prayer-shawl and phylacteries, with his eyes streaming tears. This is what he wrote: “Happy are you, and happy is your portion, for you have been privileged to save our ancient nation from inner schism and spiritual collapse. Our people that dwells in Zion was confronted with a danger that would have brought total destruction upon it, God forbid. Even in a secular perspective, Saladin succeeded in defeating the Crusaders because of their assimilation in the native population. As we know, this example is the very one our enemies today keep in mind. Your proud, authentically Jewish position has brought a swift and final solution to this problem. Who knows, perhaps it is just for such a time as this that you have come to royal position [the words of Mordecai to Esther in the biblical story]. Blessings to you, Madam Prime Minister, and I fervently pray for you and for all this people, be strong and of good heart.

To be fair, there were more moderate voices in Israel speaking out on the issue, even if they tended to get drowned in the general clamor, and some Israelis also showed a clear appreciation of the farcical aspects in the forensic excesses of their fellow citizens. The best statement of this sort that I have seen is a column in Lamerhav by the novelist, Hanoch Bartov. His view of the case and of the reaction to it strikes me as refreshingly sane and reasonable. On the large, theoretical question of who is a Jew—what he calls the “historiosophical question”—Bartov tends to sympathize with Justices Kister and Silberg, who pointed out that the unique historical circumstances and extraterritorial condition of the Jews make it very difficult to apply the usual criteria for defining nationality. On a more practical level, Bartov recognizes a compelling necessity to facilitate the absorption of the increasing numbers of immigrants from Russia and the West that Israel anticipates in the coming years; and in regard to the human problems of this potential community of newcomers, the Court decision seems a sound measure. Bartov sees the real “meaning” of the entire affair in terms of what it implies about current Israeli politics: Golda Meir’s government capitulated without struggle to the demands of an Orthodox minority in a way that previous administrations refused to do. Finally, Bartov is keenly aware of how ludicrous the debate becomes in the argumentation of its shriller participants, and I here offer his comments on a real pearl of absurdity, a statement by a Member of Knesset:

Listening to the uproar raised this week, one would imagine that the State of Israel were flooded with hundreds of thousands of gentile women and children of gentile women, demanding their right of life in the Jewish state. Things reached the point where M. K. Mordecai Zer of the Alignment said, according to Haaretz of this Wednesday, “Now anyone who feels like it can proclaim himself a Jew. The Court decision will open the Israel Defense Force to thousands of Fatah people.” I would like to believe that the honorable M. K., for whom I voted, did not speak in this fashion, but if that is what he really said, I wonder about myself—whom have I delegated as my representative in the legislature?

The fact that such a dispute could move strong public men to tears of self-pity and stir cool reasoners to somersaults of sophistry is itself symptomatic of what is both uneasy and unique about the conditions of Israel’s national existence. People in general will tend to absolutize the conditional, convert into portentous symbol what is incidental, accidental, or even trivial, when they are caught up in a central preoccupation, so that they begin to see everywhere the face of what they fear, the promise of what they seek. The Shalit dispute gives very little indication of what eventual conclusions Israeli society may draw about who is a Jew, but it does lucidly reveal how important the question remains to Israelis, secular as well as religious, how much it is a national preoccupation, even amid the rumble of guns along the Suez and the Syrian border. Or perhaps I should say, especially amid the rumble of guns. For if the security situation was occasionally invoked by spokesmen for the government position in a futile attempt to silence debate—“in a time of national emergency the people must at all costs remain united”—the actual impact of the military conflict was to serve as a stimulus for debate. The implicit sense of many who took part in the controversy seemed to be something like this: if we have come here from all over the world, and now we are called upon to lay down our lives in defense of our right to exist here as a nation, it is desperately important that we know who we are, who we want to be, or who we ought to be.

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The classic Zionist thinkers imagined that the problematic consciousness of one’s Jewishness was a product of the Jew’s marginal existence in the Diaspora, and that the “normalization” of Jewish life in a Jewish state would put an end to such troubled sense of identity. There is an irony, then, in the fact that this problematic consciousness of Jewish identity among Israelis is precisely what reveals most sharply the profoundly Zionist character of Israel. For what was clear above all else in the Shalit controversy was that virtually all the disputants assumed without question that Israel is not a state like other states but the sovereign arm and territorial focal point of a Jewish people that exists throughout the world. Thus, at least on the level of slogans and national bugaboos, the threat of “splitting the Jewish people” serves almost as an Israeli equivalent of the Red Scare in America during the early 50’s: it is surely revealing that the very words used one week by the traditionalists to describe the Court ruling were taken up a week later by their antagonists to describe the new Knesset law—the change, each side claimed for different reasons, would tend to “drive a deep wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry.”

The marked tendency to exaggerate the implications of an internal dispute over registration procedures was itself largely a result of the sense that Israel is intimately, fatefully bound with the far reaches of the Diaspora and must exercise the most scrupulous care in all it does that might conceivably impinge on the Diaspora. The kind of assumption of belonging spelled out by Shmuel Schnitzer in an article in Maariv was tacitly held by virtually all the participants in the dispute: “Only a part of the Jewish people, 18 per cent, lives in the State of Israel. . . In matters of citizenship the State is sovereign, but in questions of nationality [le’om] it has no authority to decide. . . . As members of the Jewish le’om Israelis are a minority, and any attempt to decide in the name of all Jews . . . would fall into the category of usurpation.” One should note here the explicitly political vocabulary applied to Jewish people-hood, with profuse italic emphasis, by Schnitzer. Others, of course, drew very different conclusions, although they shared Schnitzer’s strong sense that the Jewish people in Israel and abroad constitutes a single, quasi-political entity.5 This assumption, indeed, is so basic to Israeli thinking that it is even a matter of practical foreign policy. Thus, Israel, mindful of its ties to black Africa, has refused to recognize Rhodesia, where there is a very small and transient Jewish population, but it maintains diplomatic relations with South Africa, though at the lowest possible non-ambassadorial level, because it feels it has a responsibility to help protect the precarious interests of South Africa’s 120,000 Jews.

Those who suggest, then, that Israel might solve its conflict with the Arabs by repealing the Law of Return and in other ways “de-Zionizing” itself make about as much sense as someone proposing that France end its historical tensions with England by adopting the English language and culture. This living community of people, with the exception of a tiny majority within it, is firm in the conviction that it exists in the Middle East as a sovereign entity in order to be a Jewish community, with all that implies of connection with Jews elsewhere. What it cannot agree upon, what it is therefore driven to ludicrous extremes to argue about, is precisely where the lines of demarcation for Jewishness are to be drawn. Viewed cynically, the Israelis’ concern with Diaspora Jewry could be explained as a mere reflex of self-interest: they want immigrants from America, Russia, and Western Europe because they are afraid of Levantinization; they want greater numbers of Jews to bolster their ranks against the enemies around them. These are, to be sure, powerful motives, but they do not entirely explain Israel’s sense of attachment to the Diaspora, or even Israel’s eagerness for increased immigration. Although one cannot neatly separate self-interest from human concern, there is also an observable element of genuine fellow-feeling in the attitude of many Israelis toward Jews throughout the world, and at least one motive for their desire to see more immigration is their conviction that they have undertaken a uniquely challenging and momentous enterprise in re-establishing a Jewish state, an enterprise in which they would like more of their fellow Jews to join them. A corollary, however, of this sense of global Jewish solidarity would seem to be the necessity to live with the tensions of an ongoing, perhaps unresolvable, debate about the legal, historical, and theological complications of who is a Jew. The inner divisions on this question within Israel will, I think, continue to prevent the Israeli government from codifying too much, too absolutely, while it is even safer to predict that for the happy, dispassionate few in Israel, the disputants will continue to provide the amusement of what must surely be one of the most peculiar of national pastimes.

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1 Since Justice Agranat, in supporting the minority view, claimed that “there was no consensus concerning [who is a Jew] among the enlightened section of the public,” it is worth mentioning that a public opinion survey undertaken in Israel for the London Jewish Chronicle in November 1968, showed 59 per cent opposed to identifying religion and le’om in the legal definition of a Jew, while only 32 per cent were in favor of the practice.

2 As this goes to press (early June), the National Religious party, because of a new test case involving a woman converted to Judaism by a Reform rabbi, is in fact attempting—though with no apparent hope of success—to pass a law that would exclude from registration as a Jew any convert who has not gone through the Orthodox procedures. For those who fight the battles of the Lord, the appetite for new conquests is indeed insatiable.

3 The charge of racism was much bandied about, but the forthright halakhic practice, going back to the earliest talmudic times, is to make any convert a full-fledged member of the Jewish people (or “race”) when he accepts the Jewish faith. This does not, of course, solve Shalit’s problem of conscience, or the new historical dilemma of a large community of Jews, clearly regarded as Jews, who are themselves no longer professors of the Jewish faith.

4 This connection may in fact be active on a larger scale: one of the most troubling political developments in Israel since the Six-Day War is a growing affinity between the National Religious party and the rightist, hard-line Gahal party.

5 Daniel J. Elazar has recently argued that this very sense is growing among Diaspora Jews as well. His general definition of the peculiarly Jewish solidarity is apt: “Not the least of the emerging concerns is the redefinition of the psychological and institutional lines binding Jews into a polity of a unique sort, one formed and sustained by consent alone . . . within an objective framework that encourages such consent by making the Jews a distinctive group, with a common interest in the survival of all its parts.” “The Rediscovered Polity,” American Jewish Yearbook, 1969.

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Footnotes

1 Since Justice Agranat, in supporting the minority view, claimed that “there was no consensus concerning [who is a Jew] among the enlightened section of the public,” it is worth mentioning that a public opinion survey undertaken in Israel for the London Jewish Chronicle in November 1968, showed 59 per cent opposed to identifying religion and le’om in the legal definition of a Jew, while only 32 per cent were in favor of the practice.

2 As this goes to press (early June), the National Religious party, because of a new test case involving a woman converted to Judaism by a Reform rabbi, is in fact attempting—though with no apparent hope of success—to pass a law that would exclude from registration as a Jew any convert who has not gone through the Orthodox procedures. For those who fight the battles of the Lord, the appetite for new conquests is indeed insatiable.

3 The charge of racism was much bandied about, but the forthright halakhic practice, going back to the earliest talmudic times, is to make any convert a full-fledged member of the Jewish people (or “race”) when he accepts the Jewish faith. This does not, of course, solve Shalit’s problem of conscience, or the new historical dilemma of a large community of Jews, clearly regarded as Jews, who are themselves no longer professors of the Jewish faith.

4 This connection may in fact be active on a larger scale: one of the most troubling political developments in Israel since the Six-Day War is a growing affinity between the National Religious party and the rightist, hard-line Gahal party.

5 Daniel J. Elazar has recently argued that this very sense is growing among Diaspora Jews as well. His general definition of the peculiarly Jewish solidarity is apt: “Not the least of the emerging concerns is the redefinition of the psychological and institutional lines binding Jews into a polity of a unique sort, one formed and sustained by consent alone . . . within an objective framework that encourages such consent by making the Jews a distinctive group, with a common interest in the survival of all its parts.” “The Rediscovered Polity,” American Jewish Yearbook, 1969.

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