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Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Reject the Diaspora, Threatening to Split World Jewry

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A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. Except when he or she is not.

Just ask Joel Chasnoff, a man who immigrated to Israel, joined the army, fought in Lebanon, then discovered the state didn't consider him Jewish.

In 1950, Israel, the Jewish state passed the Law of Return, granting "all Jews" automatic citizenship upon immigration to Israel. It was a visceral response to the Holocaust, to a time of refugees, of statelessness, of desperation for a homeland. Immediately the question arose: Who qualifies? In other words: who, exactly, is a Jew?

Now that question, one that has haunted Jewish communities for eons, suddenly threatens to split the world community of Jewry, to fracture it into shards of hate, pitting one sect against the others. (Let us set aside, for the moment, the burning second question of the Palestinian hope for their own "right of return." There will be readers not satisfied by that, but this is about Jew vs. Jew).

Last week, a committee in the Israeli Knesset passed a measure that would effectively undermine all branches of Judaism other than the most militantly Orthodox. If the bill, proposed by the ultra-right wing party Yisrael Beitanu (Israel Our House) becomes law, conversion, marriages, identities will all be tightly controlled by a tiny, ultra-Orthodox group of rabbis who don't even recognize other Orthodox branches of Judaism. Jeff Goldberg, at the Atlantic, blogged that the bill, "if passed, [would] disenfranchise Reform and Conservative Jews, and help Israel transform itself into Ayatollahstan." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out forcefully against the proposal, saying it would "tear apart the Jewish people."

What's at stake here? For some, Jewish identity comes by straightforward means: a mother who is Jewish. A conversion conducted by an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, or any recognized rabbi outside of Israel. The new bill will render any non-Orthodox conversions invalid.

Israel has always teetered dangerously between David Ben-Gurion's vision of a secular state and the compromises made by the country's founders with the religious authorities. It has thrown the identity and status of hundreds of new immigrants into question. It is what has led hundreds of Israeli couples – even when both members are Jews – to marry in Cyprus rather than in Israel, so they don't have to have an ultra-Orthodox wedding. There is no civil marriage in Israel.

The ultra-religious and the increasingly politically powerful rabbis of Israel essentially do not believe that the liberal branches of Judaism meet their standards for Jewishness. (Click here to see the protest letter penned by the Masorti Movement of Israel.)

Thus they are eagerly working to delegitimize the rest of us, chipping away at not only our own identities, but also those of our children. If these rabbinical members of the Knesset have their way, marriages not conducted by these rabbis, for example, will not be recognized, effectively -- if you carry out the logic -- making our children illegitimate. In other words: making our children outside the Jewish community.

In Joel Chasnoff's marvelous memoir, "The 188th Crybaby Brigade," which came out earlier this year (think "Catch-22" for the post-modern generation), the author narrates his decision, at age 24, to leave America and join the Israeli army. It's partly for love – he's fallen for an Israeli girl and wants them to be able to live in Israel, should they choose (and if they do, he feels an army experience is essential). It's partly because he was raised in a certain kind of Jewish Zionist home – he was sent to Jewish day schools, raised with the idea that Israel needed defending. And so he goes, and becomes the best soldier in his unit --only to discover, having served in Lebanon, having patrolled the borders, the state does not consider him to be a Jew. To marry in Israel, he must convert. And though he hates himself for doing it, he goes through with it.

"To make aliyah [emigrate to Israel] and join the IDF [Israeli Defense Force], the Israeli consulate requested a copy of my bar mitzvah certificate; or, if I couldn't provide that, I could supply a letter from my rabbi (who happened to be Conservative), on synagogue letterhead, stating that I was Jewish," Chasnoff wrote me by e-mail.

"A year later, during a furlough from a tour of duty in Lebanon, Dorit (my then-girlfriend, now wife) and I applied for a marriage license. On application, I stated that my mother had converted to Judaism in 1968 -- five years before I was born. Suddenly, a letter from my rabbi was no longer enough to prove I was a Jew. The Rabbinical Authority investigated my mother's conversion and declared that, because she had studied with a Conservative rabbi, neither she nor I were Jewish. The army then sent me back to Lebanon to wage its war against Hezbollah. So I went back to Lebanon knowing that if I died in battle, I would not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. As Dorit put it: Israel didn't mind if I died for the country, so long as I didn't get married there."

When Chasnoff isn't writing memoirs that should be required reading for anyone interested in army life, Israel-Palestinian relations, or lost boys, he is a stand-up comic who frequently tours through the North American Jewish world. The buzz on the ground is one of disbelief and anger, distancing and reassessment.

"Many rabbis and educational leaders have told me, off the record, that their synagogues and organizations might be forced to consider suspending their annual synagogue trips to Israel, partly out of protest and partly because people wouldn't want to sign up for a trip to a country where they don't feel welcome. In this sense, Israel is shooting itself in the foot economically, too," Chasnoff wrote.

It is a time when American Jews have begun to question Israel's policies toward Palestinians in ever increasing numbers. It is a time when American Jews, in increasing numbers, are disaffected from the Zionist dream. It seems completely bizarre that Israel would then chip away at the very foundation that binds cousin to cousin, brother to brother. Chasnoff sees it as a betrayal. A "slap in the face."

"When I was first told I wasn't Jewish by Israel's standards, I tried to dismiss it as a paperwork issue, something I could clear up logistically. But the more I thought about it, the more it hurt me on a deep, emotional level. Judaism has always been such a strong part of my identity, and the Israel piece was essential. To be told I wasn't Jewish was extremely painful. It was a rejection not only of my legal status, but of my identity. "

Alana Newhouse, editor of the online Jewish magazine Tablet, opined for the New York Times op-ed page last week that the vision of Israel's founders was of a secular state, not one ruled by a handful of theocrats.

"The redemptive history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust has rested on the twin pillars of a strong Israel and a strong diaspora, which have spoken to each other politically and culturally, and whose successes have mutually reinforced the confidence and capacities of the other," Newhouse wrote. "Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities -- a dystopian possibility that, if this bill passes, could materialize frightfully soon."

At a moment when Israel-U.S. state relations have barely begun to thaw, one might think that the two largest world Jewish communities – one in Israel, one in the United States – would be rejoicing. Instead it's a time of tension, anger, suspicion and dread.
Filed Under: International, Field Notes

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Where do the Ashkenazi Jews come from?

The Thirteenth Tribe

The Khazar Empire and its Heritage

By Arthur Koestler

This book traces the history of the ancient Khazar Empire, a major but almost forgotten power in Eastern Europe, which in A.D. 740 converted to Judaism. Khazaria, a conglomerate of Aryan Turkic tribes, was finally wiped out by the forces of Genghis Han, but evidence indicates that the Khazars themselves migrated to Poland and formed the craddle of Western (Ashkenazim) Jewry...
The Khazars' sway extended from the Black sea to the Caspian, from the Caucasus to the Volga, and they were instrumental in stopping the Muslim onslaught against Byzantium, the eastern jaw of the gigantic pincer movement that in the West swept across northern Africa and into Spain.
Thereafter the Khazars found themselves in a precarious position between the two major world powers: the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium and the triumphant followers of Mohammed. As Arthur Koestler points out, the Khazars were the Third World of their day, and they chose a surprising method of resisting both the Western pressure to become Christian and the Eastern to adopt Islam. Rejecting both, they converted to Judaism.
The second part of Mr. Koestler's book deals with the Khazar migration to Polish and Lithuanian territories, caused by the Mongol onslaught, and their impact on the racial composition and social heritage of modern Jewry. He produces a large body of meticulously detailed research in support of a theory that sounds all the more convincing for the restraint with which it is advanced.

July 21 2010 at 12:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In 1948, the ultraorthodox were against the establishment of a secular Jewish state on the principle that the Messiah must come first. Ben Gurion was forced to make an agreement called the "Status Quo" agreement, that gave the Orthodox Rabbinate control over certain domestic institutions, such as marriage, divorce, burial, and certain Sabbath "blue laws." And so, there is no civil marriage in Israel. However, civil unions are accepted and basically serve the same purpose for most practical matters. But even in the US, I remember when we had Sunday Blue Laws, and my father got a few tickets opening his shop on Sunday. Naturally, to the atheists these things are irksome and inconvenient. But it is the Middle East, and total separation of Church, Synagogue and Mosque from the state just doesn't work over there. And frankly, it doesn't totally work here either. Everyone on board for gay marriage?

July 20 2010 at 10:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My husband is Jewish, and he jokes that he is a "real Jew", that is, born of a Jewish mother. But there is nothing about Israel that resonates with him. His homeland is Argentina and he has been living in the US for 25 years. His Jewish friends are also not supporters of Israel. It is only the older generation who support Israel.

July 20 2010 at 6:50 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kathleenmuro's comment

Most Jews in America and Europe, especially Germany, and in much of the world were non-zionists and even anti-zionists until WWII. Many were highly assimilated, and even converts to Christianity, no longer Jews at all except under the Nazi race laws, and yet, during WWII, when nation after nation collaborated in turning over their Jews to the Nazis, it suddenly dawned on many such Jews, that maybe their optimism and trust in their fellow citizens was somewhat misplaced after all. Even in France, the land of Egalite, Liberte, and Fraternite, the French police nevertheless helped the Gestapo round them up. Those Jews learned the hard way, from their neighbors, who they really were. Now many thousands were saved, like my mother in Poland, by true, decent Christians. But the majority turned away and averted their eyes as their Jewish neighbors were dispossessed rounded up, and taken away to parts unknown. Now, that may never happen again. But I think it is a good idea to have at least one little Jewish state nonetheless, just in case. My mother, a holocaust survivor, used to say, "Times may change, but people don't." So only time will tell.

July 20 2010 at 9:30 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

why should the secular state including Muslim Knesset members decide a religious question?
for this exact reason the state set up a religious branch "the chief rabbinate of Israel".

this article is so one sided that its scary!

July 20 2010 at 6:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Religious fundamentalism is a bad thing, it disrespects the individual and allows a small group of fanatics to control people with hocus pocus. The Jews as a people have always been better than that, we cannot let this happen.

July 20 2010 at 5:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

It's a sad sad thing that a few theocrats can do what 3000 years and geographical distances failed to do.

The Israel I know is fighting for religious pluralism and against religious intolerance. I hope Netanyahu doesn't back down and goes thru with his promise to look out for the best interests of the entire Jewish people and not just the Orthodox.

I myself am an atheist, but like most secular Jews in Israel I sympathize with Reform Judaism best.

July 20 2010 at 4:01 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to goichmane's comment

Look, someone has to define who belongs to the tribe, and who doesn't. If I wanted to know what it takes to be a Navajo, I'd go to their tribal elders and ask what their tribal law says. What if I wanted to join the Navajos. How do I get in? The secular State of Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, does not define WHo is a Jew. The tribal elders, the Rabbinate, does. It's been that way for 2,500 years, so why should it change now? Israel can't fit in everyone who wants to play "Jew." That's not even fair to the Arabs. They say, why does Israel allow these "pseudo-Jews" in, when Palestinian refugees can't go back to their grandparents lands.They have a point. It's harsh, but Israel must primarily let in bonafide members of the tribe, and not every Jewish wannabe!

July 20 2010 at 9:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

One must understand that the ultra orthodox in Israel and around the world don't want Israel to exist at all. It gets in the way of their Messiah coming back. They will do just about anything to undermine the secular State of Israel...

July 20 2010 at 3:37 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

I was brought up Christian and both church and family taught me to respect other religions. After studying comparative religions I came to admire others. I see that we have more similarities than differences until ethnic politics sneaks into some and causes dissension. We should learn to cooperate. There are elements in the world that would like to do away with all religions.

July 20 2010 at 2:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

It seems to me that if Israel does that, fewer people would move there. Eventually, people will have fewer children there. Israel would be more isolated. Fewer people will fight for Israel. Eventually, Israel will cease to exist.

July 20 2010 at 2:18 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Pagan's comment

Woo-Hoo! And the world would be a better place.....

July 20 2010 at 3:21 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply

If the ultras gain this degree of control over all things Israeli, then the next time there's a major flap between Israel and Iran (or any other country controlled by bearded fanatics) I'm flipping a coin before taking a side. There's no functional difference between deranged Jews and deranged Muslims.

July 20 2010 at 1:43 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

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