How do you Prove You’re a Jew?

Gershon Gorenberg has written a new article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine
on the difficulties some Israeli Jews are having proving their Jewishness before rabbinic courts in that country.  The article is interesting and touches upon many of the issues we discussed in intro to comparative that deal with concepts of identity–nationhood, ethnicity, citizenship, etc.  In fact, I think I’ll be including this article in the syllabus during future iterations of this course.  In addition, I did not know that there is no civil marriage ceremony (marriage ceremonies are purely a religious affair in Israel) in Israeli law, but upon further reflection, I probably should have guessed that would be the case.

The story is particularly significant for American Jews, to which the accompanying snippets below attest:

02jewish1-500.jpgOne day last fall, a young Israeli woman named Sharon went with her fiancé to the Tel Aviv Rabbinate to register to marry. They are not religious, but there is no civil marriage in Israel. The rabbinate, a government bureaucracy, has a monopoly on tying the knot between Jews. The last thing Sharon expected to be told that morning was that she would have to prove — before a rabbinic court, no less — that she was Jewish. It made as much sense as someone doubting she was Sharon, telling her that the name written in her blue government-issue ID card was irrelevant, asking her to prove that she was she…

…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.

The story reminds me of a friend of mine who–of Croatian parentage but born in Canada– upon her arrival in Croatia (she had decided to move there during the middle of the war in the 1990s) had gone to the local police station with the aim of registering her presence (at that time, all foreigners were required to report to police within 24 hours of their arrival).  When she took out her Canadian passport, a clerk at the Ministry of Internal Affairs asked her the names of her parents.  After my friend responded, the clerk refused to allow her to register as a foreigner and insisted that she take out Croatian citizenship on the spot.  When my friend insisted that she was a Canadian citizen, the clerk responded “your father is ours, your mother is ours, that makes you  one of us also.”


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