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What The Economist Gets Wrong about “Who is a Jew”

by Shmuel Rosner

January 14, 2014 | 7:16 am

An Israeli flag, photo by Reuters

Who is a Jew? The Economist, in an article that has been widely read in recent days, makes this claim:

This question is becoming ever more pressing for Jews around the world. It looks like a religious issue, but is bound up with history, Israeli politics and the rhythms of the diaspora. Addressing it means deciding whether assimilation is a mortal threat, as many Jews think, or a phenomenon to be accommodated. The struggle over the answer will shape Israel’s society, its relations with Jews elsewhere, and the size and complexion of the global Jewish community.

This is a reasonable claim, but the article, in its attempt to be interesting, frames it in a way that isn't as reasonable:

There are now several hundred thousand ex-Soviet Israelis who were Jewish enough to get in, but are not Jewish enough for the rabbis. Most are put off by the length and intellectual demands of the halachic conversion process (it doesn’t help that finished conversions are sometimes annulled for violations of Sabbath or other religious rules). Since Israel offers them no civil marriage ceremony, these Israelis and their partners go abroad to marry (as do some couples who prefer to avoid the synagogues). The population is beginning to divide into three parts: halachic Jews and Arabs, but also “others”. This tripartite split, says Yedidia Stern, a jurist at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think-tank, “is a time bomb”.

Well, that's not accurate. The "several hundred thousand" are more like three hundred thousand out of eight million – or six million Jews. It is a large group, but hardly large enough to be a "time bomb". Moreover, if it becomes a time bomb, if the matter becomes really pressing, a solution to it will be found. That's the nature of politics: solutions are provided to complicated problems only when a matter becomes really pressing. Worst case scenario: some Orthodox Israelis will have to run their own lists of marriageable Jews, and refrain from marrying others. Most Israelis are much more likely to make do with some kind of compromise.

Bottom line: Who is a Jew is not really such an urgent matter for Israel.

The story is different in the diaspora, of course. Jews living in other countries, mostly in the US, do have the pressing matter of interfaith marriage to deal with. But once again, the article, which wants to be more interesting than (the interesting enough) reality, ties diaspora dilemmas to Israeli actuality, as if the problems are similar. They aren't. These are different problems, facing different communities, to which a unified solution can't be applied.

Thus, the Economist is correct to argue that "The bonds between Israel and the diaspora could weaken."

The explanation for this weakening scenario, though, isn't quite coherent in their telling. The problem of Israel-diaspora relations isn't the same as the problem of Orthodox and non-Orthodox interpretations of Judaism. The problem of Israel-diaspora relations stems from Israel's higher incentive and greater ability to find common ground for it to remain a unified community – an ability that includes state power to enforce certain criteria (for example, criteria for conversion) – and the Diaspora's lower incentive and much lower ability to create an agreed upon standard. Thus, Israel is likely to find a way to keep navigating the stormy waters of 'who is a Jew' on one raft, as shaky as it might be, while diaspora communities are likely to split and board many rafts that will ultimately drift away from one another, and from the Israeli raft, by defining Judaism in an ever expanding way (and, for a large number of them, by ceasing to be actively Jewish).

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