All Writings
December 12, 1988

Am I Not A Jew Too?

Nearly two months have passed since the Israeli general elections, and the results reflected a sad reality: dissension, disunity, lack of purpose, party infighting, jealousies and, above all, a hunger to hold onto power.

In an effort to form a coalition government, the heads of the two leading parties competed shamelessly to lure the religious parties into a narrow coalition government. Realizing their importance, the religious parties set out to extract every conceivable concession, the most egregious being the redefinition of what constitutes a convert, an act which would require an amendment to the Law of Return.

There was nothing new in the religious parties' quest for such an amendment. Throughout Israel's existence, the question of who is a Jew has been debated constantly. The religious parties were consistent in their demands. However, the leading parties, Likud and Labor, had always resisted these demands, fearing an uproar by American Jews and by those Israelis afraid that such an act would undermine Israel's character as a home for all Jews regardless of their religious affiliation.

For the last four decades, the religious parties have worked very diligently to move Israel toward Orthodoxy. They have always viewed themselves as religiously pure and the only ones fit to be the true keepers of the faith and caretakers of the holy places.

To that end, they extracted a wide range of concessions from each leading party in exchange for joining a coalition government. These concessions have included government funding for religious education, strict Shabbat observance, religious control of marriage and divorce laws, exemption from military service and maintenance of Kashrut in public eating places. Now, at the risk of further disenfranchising Reform and Conservative Jews, they insist on redefining who is a Jew.

During the recent negotiations, Labor leader Shimon Peres promised to bring the issue to a vote in his party's central committee. But Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir outbid his rival and wrestled the religious parties back to the Likud-led coalition government by making a commitment to support legislation that would change the law. In one stroke, Shamir was prepared not only to write off Reform and Conservative converts, but to erode dangerously the base on which Judaism rests. In short, it is nothing less than a travesty.

Who is a Jew? Since when is Jewish identity a political issue? The question of Jewish identity touches the very heart of Judaism. No political party or coalition of parties has the right to redefine or amend a law that could affect the lives of Diaspora Jewry. By raising the question in a political context, those who support such an act have exposed themselves as hypocrites.

Jewish identity is not a commodity to be traded by Israel's political merchants, it is not a property to be sold in the muddy exchange of Israel's politics. How sad it is that in their zealous grasp for power, Israeli politicians have managed to reduce Jewish roots to political expediency. In the final analysis, they have surrendered the riches of the Jewish faith to the whims of fanatics, and in the process, have sacrificed Israel's standing as a democratic secular state in which all religious denominations can flourish and thrive.

The American Reform or Conservative Jew has every right to be indignant, nay, feel betrayed, disowned and disinherited. The passage of such a law will make every convert to Judaism feel like a bastard in the eyes of everything he cherished the most. The rift between Diaspora Jewry and Israel will become real, anger and rage will set in, barriers will be built and the prospect of disintegration will loom high. True, the number affected will not be great. Yet many people have converted to Judaism with much pain and anguish. Some have had to endure ridicule; others were rebuked by friends and family.

But they all embraced Judaism with passion. To them it was coming home to the warmth of a spiritual hearth. They did not join a cult or a clique; they found a universe of human experience. To them and to every enlightened Jew, all branches of Judaism are equal. None can dominate nor dictate to the others and certainly, none can invalidate a Reform or Conservative conversion. Such an act would be nothing less than an assault on their faith, a ruthless attack on their legitimacy, an affront to their dignity and a deep injury to their pride. The danger to our existence as Jews and the danger to Judaism itself emanates from within. When we begin to doubt each other, when we infringe upon each other's inherent rights, when fanaticism of any color sets in, when narrow self-interest becomes the order of the day and alienation marks us, we will self-destruct.

We who are destined to live in constant dispersion must reach for each other, must maintain the common thread of Judaism in its infinite expanse and its boundless breadth. Nothing is more perilous to Judaism than self-consuming fanaticism and the blind pursuit of self-centered objectives no matter how noble they may seem to those who seek them. The Law of Return grants any Jew Israeli citizenship, a place under the sun. The Law of Return is not a gift but a right – the right to come to the shores of Israel, the right of every Jew to live free, the right to be a devout or a moderate, Conservative or Reform or just the right to be — a Jew.

Those who try to tamper with our religious affiliation simply because it does not conform with theirs must not forget the time when being a Jew was a crime. Our assailants asked not who was a Jew by birth, who was Orthodox, who was not. They asked not who was converted by a Reform or Conservative rabbi and who followed tradition to the dot. Yes, we were equal in the eyes of our persecutors – yet sadly, are not so in the eyes of our brothers and sisters. But ani I not a Jew too?

The Israeli leaders — Shamir, Sharon, Shaki, etc. — must all remember that Israel was created to answer the call. Israel was built to provide a home. Israel is the base of our ingathering, the center of our being and the core of our faith. Israel is the refuge to which we can turn. It symbolizes the totality of Jewish experience and exemplifies the entire Jewish body. Every organ has its function, every movement and organization has its mission. None can usurp the other. For in the end, all streams of Judaism must forever flow freely to reach the height that God bestowed on both Judaism and Jerusalem.