Type J (positive)

My friend Gershom Gorenberg wrote a smart piece for the New York Times Sunday Magazine last week-end, detailing (in part) the difficulties of a young Israeli woman, born on a kibbutz, trying to prove that she was, indeed, a Jew to the satisfaction of Israel’s Rabbinic courts. Where once the Rabbis focused on Jewish conversion, now they are questioning Jewish birth: the piece has been at the top of the Times’ “most emailed” for the past few days, as it deserves to be, given its quality and the paper’s large number of readers who are identified Jews, presumptively Jews, arguably Jews, married to Jews, or just interested in the Jewish state’s legal apparatus, about which more in a moment.

Gershom could not cover everything. He finally showed how Israel’s Rabbinic courts were bound to alienate the majority of American Jews affiliated with the Reform movement or other non-Orthodox congregations. But as he subsequently emailed me, this is obviously a “human-rights” question, and not only an internal fight between trends in Jewish religious life. Which brings me back to Israeli law.

FROM ITS INCEPTION, the Israeli state apparatus recognized, in effect, two categories of personal status: ezrahut, most commonly understood as “citizenship,” and le’om, which means “nationality” or “peoplehood.” Virtually all residents of Mandate Palestine who remained within Israel’s international boundary at the end of 1948–49 war, including the 180,000 Arabs, qualified for citizenship. They enjoyed equality in the new civil society, including the right to vote.

But people legally designated yehudi, “Jewish nationals”—people with Jewish origins, whether coming from Mandate Palestine or the Diaspora—had other material privileges, accorded by the core Zionist apparatus: residence rights in Jewish settlements owned by the Jewish National Fund, subsidized mortgages, and so forth. As Gershom notes, Israel has no civil marriage, so being Jewish is also essential if you wish to marry a Jew.

Or be buried next to a loved one who is Jewish, or handle wine and still have it be kosher (not a small matter for Israel’s crucial tourist and restaurant industry), or go to state supported schools meant for “religious” Jews. All of these privileges—and many more—create a state supported Rabbinic monopoly, and tens of thousands ward-of-the-state jobs for people close to Orthodox parties.

Finally, to qualify for immediate citizenship under the Law of Return (the real focus of the NYT's piece, given that the woman in question is the daughter of an American Jewish immigrant), you must be the “child or grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew or the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.” This was not the standard of traditional Halakha, which deemed a Jew to be anyone born of a Jewish mother, but the new state—so it was thought—should accord Israeli citizenship to anybody who would have died as a Jew during the Second World War. (In fact, the Law of Return’s standard mirrors the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Laws.) Then came a series of High Court decisions (and Knesset overturnings of High Court decisions) which determined that a Jewish national cannot be a Christian, and also that Jewish nationality cannot be, in effect, Israeli nationality—that is, acquired in the way almost all democratic countries naturalize citizens, through language and civic action.

SO IF YOU are born in Israel to a Jewish mother, then you are a Jewish national and a citizen. You can also get immediate Israeli citizenship, under the Law of Return, if you are an immigrant who has not renounced the Jewish faith and are descended from at least one Jewish grandparent—a grandparent, that is, who was born to a Jewish mother who had not renounced her faith. But if you are such an immigrant, and only your father is Jewish, you are not automatically a Jewish national. To become one, you must undergo a sincere conversion. The same with people who are born in Israel to a Jewish father only. They are citizens—but can only become Jewish nationals by sincerely converting to Judaism. (Sincerity is a matter decided by Orthodox Rabbinic courts.) A non-Jew can also become a Jewish national by converting, like the child born in Israel to a non-Jewish mother, but unlike that child, cannot be a citizen without converting. An Arab Muslim can never become a Jewish national and, if born outside the country, can forget about becoming a citizen. Then again, the interior minister can just make you a citizen. Clear?

I hasten to add that getting the state to recognize non-Orthodox forms of conversion to Judaism is of no help here. Many Israeli liberals claimed a victory in 2002 when the High Court ruled that conversions to Judaism performed by Reform movement rabbis must be recognized by the Ministry of Interior. (The decision, which is often ignored, was meant to smooth the way to Jewish nationality for Russian immigrants, whose children serve in the army but who generally detest the Orthodox rabbinate.) In March 2005, the court also ruled that people already residing in Israel who go overseas for a final Reform conversion ceremony must also be recognized as Jews.

But the question, surely, is not whether the Reform movement should have the right to declare a Jewish convert qualified for state privileges. Recognition of Reform authority may do something for pluralism within Jewish religious life but nothing for constitutional pluralism within Israeli democracy. The question is how to square privileges for Jews with the equality presumed by democratic law. The High Court’s decisions only made a discriminatory standard somewhat more inclusive. It did nothing to integrate Israeli Arabs, or for that matter, the Filipinas who tend to Jewish grandparents, or the Thais who build Jewish housing.

Given Jewish history, it would be tactless to call such laws racist. So let us just say that they privilege citizens based on fine distinctions regarding accidents of birth.