Why does Israel reject ethnic Jews as legitimate Jews?

Jewish men praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem

What do Woody Allen, Richard Dreyfuss, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Gene Wilder, Jack Black, Larry David, Bill Maher, Sarah Silverman, Shalom Hanoch and Billy Joel all have in common?

Yes, they are all famous Jews, but more than that, they are Jews who have rejected the Jewish religion but, nonetheless, would likely refer to themselves as ethnic Jews. Unlike observant or even marginally religious Jews, ethnic Jews are those who were born Jewish and whose connection with Judaism is expressed through their culture, which includes the food, the humor, the music, a particular style of conversation and also an acknowledgment and often participation in the main Jewish holidays. In fact, even with the most minimal of connections, the last vestiges of ethnic Judaism are still observed through brit mila and often a bar or bat mitzvah (usually marked with a large party absent a religious ceremony).

The list of renowned ethnic Jews goes on and on, including musicians, comedians, writers, scientists, athletes, public figures, politicians and a great deal of ordinary everyday people who, for whatever reason, feel no need to be affiliated with a religion that is neither inclusive or speaks to them personally. Consequently, one sure result of this break with the “rules of the faith,” as prescribed by the rabbinate, has been intermarriage and assimilation.

In a situation such as this, it would seem that the logical and sensible solution, by their fellow observant Jews, who lament over the choices of so many not to follow the religion, would be to do everything within their power to figure out how to be more inclusive, more engaging and much more welcoming in order to regather those who they consider to be “lost to their people.”

In fact, they are not at all lost to their people. They have merely chosen to remain in the tribe without conforming to what they view as man-made rules that infringe upon their chosen lifestyle, their own sense of spirituality and their freedom to reject what doesn’t feel natural to them.

Steven Pruzansky, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, New Jersey, wrote about this very subject in his Jerusalem Post op-ed from July 25, titled, “The consequences of intermarriage.” His writing very much embodies the troubling dismissal by Jewish leadership of those who are deemed to “feel no Jewish identity.” He says that those who have described the consequences of intermarriage as “a plague and a second Holocaust” need not apologize for such harsh characterizations. Pruzansky, quite certain of his opinion, believes that “the Jewish identity” of these ethnic Jews is “tenuous and clearly not based on the features of Jewish life that bind all Jews: Torah, mitzvot, love of Israel and the people of Israel, etc.” He says that “Jews of no religion tracks neatly with the rate of intermarriage in American life over the past six decades,” and he further states that they “feel no Jewish identity, no bond with Israel or the Jewish people.”

It is with the above contentions that I would like to opine. A Jew who has rejected today’s Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism – which, in Israel, is considered to be the only legitimate expression of the Jewish religion, does not automatically mean that that same Jew has no connection to their people, to the State of Israel or to their Jewish identity. For anyone to make such a statement would have to take into consideration an in-depth conversation with each and every Jew who considers themselves a Jew of ethnicity and not of religion. It would also have to take into consideration that the thoughts, feelings and values of ethnic Jews are pre-known and a settled science.

Yet, clearly, no one can know what is in the hearts and minds of unaffiliated Jews or what they feel when they hear the playing of “Hatikvah,” or how they react when they watch a Holocaust-themed film or what goes through their mind when they see Hamas rockets flying in the night sky toward Tel Aviv. Who gets to determine and judge that they are apathetic, indifferent and unfeeling toward their ethnic homeland and their people? Who determines that they do not live according to Jewish scriptural values of “love thy neighbor” or ”do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”

US-born newly elected Knesset member Alon Tal of the Blue and White Party noticed this problem and spoke about it in a June 16 article in the Post citing the problem of “alienated Jews.” In fact, he seems to be on a mission to advance “religious pluralism and improving Israel’s relations with what he calls ‘the alienated progressive Jewish world.’” Apparently, he is of the opinion that ethnic Jews are not a lost cause and definitely still very much part and parcel of the Jewish people as a whole.

Perhaps, what Tal does not realize is that ethnic Jews who are unable to produce the “coveted” rabbi’s letter to the Interior Ministry for the purpose of being labeled a “legitimate Jew,” are neither welcomed here nor are being courted to come home, at a time when they may actually begin to have serious thoughts about connecting to their people and their homeland. Tal may not understand that the only litmus test for any Jew, these days, is to somehow prove that not only were you born Jewish but that you have been a member in good standing of the organized Jewish community.

Yet that is not necessarily the path that possibly millions of Jews have taken. If those Jews are now seen as rubbish to be discarded, because they serve no purpose to their people or their country, who then is guilty of a second Holocaust? That’s a lot of Jews to disenfranchise and nullify simply because they don’t meet an arbitrary criteria of lifestyle that is deemed to be the only legitimate lifestyle for a Jew, per the current eligibility of who is entitled to become a citizen of Israel.

It might serve those who work in the Interior Ministry to bone up on the secular Law of Return, which was enacted on July 5, 1950 declaring: “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant].”

In 1970, the right of entry and settlement was extended to people with one Jewish grandparent and a person who is married to a Jew whether or not he or she is considered Jewish under Orthodox interpretations. Wikipedia’s “Who is a Jew” page describes Jewish identity being “also commonly defined through ethnicity. Opinion polls have suggested that the majority of Jews see being Jewish as predominantly a matter of ancestry and culture, rather than religion.”

Be certain that the “plague” is not being perpetrated by intermarried Jews but rather by those who are unwilling to help lead them back home as they are!

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post, July 29, 2021, and reposted with permission.