Voice of the Jewish News: Who is a Jew? Israel opens up the debate

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Voice of the Jewish News: Who is a Jew? Israel opens up the debate

This week's editorial reflects on Israel's landmark decision to recognise non-Orthodox conversions, and what it might mean for British progressive Judaism

Jewish News
Holding the passport of the State of Israel
Holding the passport of the State of Israel

Put aside that old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues, one of which he would never be seen dead in. The fact is that, in Britain, we do a decent job at bringing together Judaism’s various strands.

It’s hard to say the same of Israel, where a High Court decision ordering state authorities to recognise non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism has given politicians there something new to argue about.

The battle lines, coming three weeks before yet another divisive election, are excessively familiar. Left-wing and progressive factions praised the court ruling. Right-wing and Orthodox movements condemned it.

It is less controversial for most British Jews because we have organisations like the Board of Deputies, which represents congregations that are Orthodox, Liberal and everything in between. We do not just tolerate different streams of Judaism. We have even shown in recent years that we can come together against external threats.

Many of us would be distinctly uncomfortable if any of our leaders echoed the words of David Lau, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, who this week repeated his view that “whoever becomes Jewish in a Reform conversion or something similar is not Jewish”.

Yet the ruling was a reminder to British Jews — the vast majority of whom love Israel and the ideals on which it was founded — that the world’s only Jewish country has a very narrow definition of what constitutes a Jew.

Successive Israeli prime ministers have skirted around the issue, mainly because they are stuck between two colossal forces: on one side is the United States, where the largest Jewish congregations are Reform and Conservative; on the other side stand Israel’s own Chief Rabbis, who do not consider those same movements sufficiently Jewish. It’s a perilous balancing act for any politician.

This week’s court ruling is a victory for the 12 petitioners who converted to Judaism and now want the right to become Israelis. It is also a reminder that, even where politicians cannot find a way forward, Israel’s justice system remains robust enough to defend the fundamental rights of disenfranchised people.

Of course, it does not resolve the question of what constitutes a Jew. That subject often stirs passions and we will probably never agree on a precise definition.

But we have plenty in common. Remember that stranded Jew on the desert island: yes, he has built a building he would never be seen dead in but the joke always records him describing it as a synagogue.

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