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.
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