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‘Who Is a Jew’ Redux

In announcing this week that the Jewish state would grant equal status to Reform and Conservative conversion ceremonies for purposes of citizenship and population registry, Israel’s interior minister took one of those political steps that shouldn’t have been necessary, but was.

The unilateral declaration by the minister, Avraham Poraz of the secularist Shinui party, is sure to spark new rounds of name-calling, court battles and parliamentary brinksmanship by the Orthodox rabbinical establishment, which stands to lose its monopoly over defining who is Jewish in Israeli law. Instead of helping to heal the rift between Orthodox and non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, Poraz’s tactic will probably deepen the breach, at least for now. It would have been better if the standoff could have been settled through negotiation and compromise, but they’ve been tried over and over, and they haven’t worked. Now, with the electoral success of Shinui finally putting some political clout in the hands of religious liberals, the time had come for direct action, and Poraz acted.

The “Who is a Jew?” debate has been a political and legal minefield in Israel for five decades. Over the years, Israel’s courts have ruled repeatedly that Judaism can take many forms, and that no one form is necessarily entitled to primacy within the Jewish state. Israel’s political system, however, has taken a different tack, granting a monopoly on conversion, marriage, burial and other personal-status issues to the Orthodox rabbinate. The reason: While most Israelis aren’t practicing Orthodox Jews, few identify with other wings of Judaism, preferring to think of themselves as secular. And so, while the Orthodox community is a minority, it forms a solid political bloc. The liberal branches do not.

During the last two decades, the issue has become a major irritant in relations between Israel and its most important ally, the American Jewish community. Most American Jews identify with the liberal branches of Judaism, and as their representatives have been repeatedly rebuffed in efforts to win recognition in Israel, resentment has grown, at times reaching fever pitch.

It’s because of those Israel-Diaspora tensions that successive Israeli governments sought during the 1980s and 1990s to negotiate a compromise. But the Orthodox rabbinate has resisted, refusing to grant even a glimmer of recognition to the liberal movements.

As long as it involved strains in Israel-Diaspora relations, the rabbis’ obstinacy was an insult and an irritant. Now, with hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants of Jewish descent languishing in religious-juridical limbo, it’s become a scandal. The Orthodox establishment, rather than seek ways to welcome the newcomers into the Israeli Jewish mainstream, has steadily tightened the screws. It has taken its monopoly and turned it into a private plaything.

Poraz’s plan, if it’s implemented, will open the way to a greatly increased role in Israel for liberal religious groups that may have a far greater appeal to non-observant Israelis, immigrant and old-timer alike. The result could be a new flowering of interest in Jewish religion and culture, benefiting all branches of Judaism. The Orthodox rabbinate should welcome the prospect and lend a hand.

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