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‘Who Is a Jew?’ Again?!

On the emotional, bedeviling issue of “Who is a Jew?” in Israel, there’s been a small but welcome move toward Jewish reconciliation and an infuriating roadblock put in the way of further progress.

First, the good news, because that’s a precious commodity on this subject. After months and months of negotiations, the Ministry of the Interior agreed that the Jewish Agency for Israel will now take the lead role in verifying Orthodox conversions as they relate to granting automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

This is important for several reasons. The interior minister, Eli Yishai, a zealot for his ultra-Orthodox Shas party (more on that in a moment), has been warring with Diaspora Jews by declaring that even many Orthodox conversions are not valid if that convert wants to make aliyah and become an Israeli citizen. Ceding to the Jewish Agency the authority to help determine eligibility esssentially liberalizes the process.

It also bolsters the role of Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, who understands that Israel’s future depends on promoting aliyah, not making it more difficult, and on strengthening relations with Diaspora Jews instead of questioning their very religious commitment, which is what Yishai has so often done during his time in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

But just days after that announcement, Yishai reopened the wound by stating that only Orthodox converts will be recognized as “Jewish” in the nationality section of new identification cards. That section has been blank since 2002, after Israel’s high court ruled that Reform and Conservative Jews must be classified as Jews. Imagine that! Yet, rather than follow that entirely reasonable ruling, the Knesset canceled the nationality clause altogether.

Now Yishai wants to bring it back, turning an ID card that is essentially a secular document into a state-sanctioned statement of an individual’s religious status. In doing so, Yishai is not only defying the law of his own land, but also delegitimizing the vast majority of Diaspora Jews who don’t ascribe to his stringent, unforgiving way of being Jewish.

Yishai’s proposal still needs further government and legislative approval, so there is time for Netanyahu to stop it, and he should. The prime minister has lately made recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State” the fundamental threshold for returning to negotiations with the Palestinians. But a state for which Jews? Who is eligible to be called an Israeli? And why is the head of a minority party within a minority denomination allowed to decide?

In Sharansky’s statement heralding his agreement with the Interior Ministry, he said that he hoped this move “has opened the door for important dialogue on further issues concerning identity.” That dialogue has never been more necessary. Instead of worrying only about delegitimization of Israel abroad, the Netanyahu administration also needs to address the delegitimization it is sanctioning at home.

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