In recent years, the state’s Chief Rabbinate and its branches in each Israeli city have adopted an institutional attitude of skepticism toward the Jewish identity of those who enter its doors. And the type of proof that the rabbinate prefers is peculiarly unsuited to Jewish life in the United States. The Israeli government seeks the political and financial support of American Jewry. It welcomes American Jewish immigrants. Yet the rabbinate, one arm of the state, increasingly treats American Jews as doubtful cases: not Jewish until proved so.
More than any other issue, the question of Who is a Jew? has repeatedly roiled relations between Israel and American Jewry. Psychologically, it is an argument over who belongs to the family. In the past, the casus belli was conversion: Would the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to any Jew coming to Israel, apply to those converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox rabbis? Now, as Sharon’s experience indicates, the status of Jews by birth is in question. Equally important, the dividing line is no longer between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. The rabbinate’s handling of the issue has placed it on one side of an ideological fissure within Orthodox Judaism itself, between those concerned with making sure no stranger enters the gates and those who fear leaving sisters and brothers outside.
...Today the meaning of being Jewish is disputed — a faith? a nationality? — but in Israeli society the principle of matrilineal descent remains widely accepted. Sharon’s mother was Jewish, so Sharon knew that she was, too. And yet it seemed impossible to provide evidence that would persuade the rabbinate.
Sharon left the office infuriated. Her mother was Jewish enough to leave affluent America for Israel; her brothers had fought for the Jewish state. Now, she felt, she was being told, “For that you’re good enough, but to be considered Jews for religious purposes you’re not.”
This is also the logical result of allowing an increasingly conservative (and apparently somewhat xenophobic) minority unbridled power over state institutions. In a pluralistic Israel, like in plenty of other Jewish communities around the world, it wouldn't MATTER how Jewish one's mother was (or wasn't). If individual people want to do background checks or stigmatize Jews because their credentials aren't good enough for them, fine, let them. But it's absurd that in a country where the vast majority of citizens are not anywhere close to Orthodox, Orthodox laws should dictate government policy. How can Israel credibly claim to be anything close to a "homeland" for the world's Jews when it is bending over backwards to disenfranchise so many of them? And for what? It's not like most of the politicians actually believe in (or care about) halacha. It's politics, pure and simple. It's the deadly weakness of the parliamentary system that gives disproportionate strength to smaller parties, thereby allowing them to hijack national policies. And it's the historical failure of countless Israeli governments to stand up to the Orthodox minority and draw their lines in the sand. The founding fathers of Israel could laugh in the face of five enemy armies but cowered under their desks when men with black hats and beards came around.
I want to stress that I do not hate the Orthodox. I admire the strength of their beliefs and think that some of their values are laudable (and brave and decent people like R. Seth Farber, mentioned later in the article, have a special place in my heart and in heaven). But halacha is NOT the law of the land of Israel, and the mere preferences of one group of Jews should not be the deciding factor of who gets to be counted. And it is this perception of a total unwillingness to compromise, as well as an encroachment on the personal lives and dignity of others, which is going a long way towards harming the image of the Orthodox among other groups of Jews, in Israel and abroad. If the Orthodox activists have their way, not only will large portions of people who presently identify as Jewish (my own cousins included) be cut off from the supposed Jewish homeland because their mothers aren't of the right "tribe" or their rabbis aren't from the right denomination, so will people like myself, Jewish on all sides as far back as we can trace, who don't have "sufficient" documentation:
“He ended up being my husband,” Suzie said with a laugh. He wasn’t Jewish, a twist in the story line. They left Israel together to wander through Europe and married in a civil ceremony in England. Those details would later loom immense: Had he been Jewish, had they married in Israel, she would have had a ketuba, or religious marriage contract issued by the rabbinate, for her daughter to show years later.
...The main function of the rabbinic courts is divorce, also a purely religious process in Israel. A secondary function is providing judicial rulings on whether a person is Jewish. For that, the main clientele is immigrants from the former Soviet Union. A fairly standard procedure exists for them. It includes examining Soviet-era documents, like birth certificates, that list a citizen’s nationality. (In the Soviet system, “Jewish” was a nationality, parallel to “Russian” or “Uzbek,” listed in everyone’s official papers.)
At the court, Sharon told me, the clerk who opened her file told her to bring her mother’s birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “I said: ‘But my mother’s birth certificate doesn’t say “Jewish.” It’s from the United States. They don’t write that. And the marriage license — they had a civil wedding.’ ” After she waited hours to see a judge, he told Sharon to return with “any document that would testify to her mother’s Jewishness.” She asked a court official if a letter from a Conservative rabbi would solve the problem. Her mother has a cousin in Florida who is a rabbi, son of the uncle who originally sent Suzie to Israel. No, the official said, “that won’t help. It has to be someone Orthodox.”
See, my parents don't have a ketuba, either. They married in a civil ceremony, and even though the person that officiated was a cantor (a first-cousin once-removed, actually), apparently HE isn't good enough because he didn't belong to the right denomination!
This is, pure and simple, lunacy. To all the aliyah-pushers out there who keep saying that us Diaspora Jews are somehow defective because we aren't "going home," how are we to react to this? I could break up with my non-Jewish girlfriend, go to Israel right now, as a "full-blooded" Jew according to the strictest halachic standards, and I might STILL be discriminated against because I don't have the right credentials! (Or maybe not: we have Hebrew tombstones and some Ellis Island documents that say we're "Hebrew"- but there's no Orthodox connection! A shanda!)
Who the hell are these bozos to make these calls? Did I miss a memo or something? The best part is that all of these hurdles are just to get to the point where one can be married in an Orthodox ceremony by an Orthodox rabbi, neither of which I have any interest in. It just keeps getting better, doesn't it? (Breaking news- the Orthodox rabbinate in America has just been informed it gets to be "kosher" again. And all it had to do was lick the Chief Rabbis' boots. Truly, a victory for all!)
Sorry, folks, but this isn't democracy. This isn't Zionism. It isn't humane or respectful, either. This is the Talibanization of Judaism and Israel, and it's disgusting. And if this is the realization of Herzl and so many others' dreams, it's no dream I want any part of.
Hat-tips: DovBear and FailedMessiah.