The Nation-State Law

In an important outcome, PM Netanyahu was successful in having the Nation-State Law passed by the Knesset.  This establishes in Israel’s Basic Laws that it is the Nation State of the Jewish people, and as such is required to take actions and have policies that are intended to ensure the survival and well-being of the Jewish people.  Note that this transcends religion, although Judaism is an integral part of Jewish culture and being, nevertheless Israel is founded on the principle that the Jews are a “nation.”  Some people like to say “a race” but this is not correct, because the Jews today are made up of many races, black, white, brown, all shades.

As evidence for this fundamental principle, that the Jews are a nation, one can readily note that when the Jews were in exile (galut) after being expelled from their historic homeland by the Roman Empire (2000 years ago), they nevertheless retained many aspects of a nation, i.e. a coherent and unique religion, a unique language (Hebrew), a continuous form of communal organization, specific ethnic practices (such as food),  and a specific history as a distinct group even though dispersed throughout many lands (diaspora).   The Jews were not unique in this respect, for example, the Armenians were also a nation devoid of a country for many years, after being expelled and massacred by the Turkish Empire.  Also, the Kurds are clearly a nation, even though dispersed between other sovereign states (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran).

As further evidence, one must note that although anti-Judaism existed early on in the history of the Church, it soon transformed into a racial hatred now known as anti-Semitism, a term that was introduced in Germany in the 19th century.  Thus, the Inquisition, founded in 1478, was obsessed with hounding and murdering so-called “New Christians” (i.e Christians descended from Jews) in order to ensure the purity of Christian blood (limpieza de sangre).

This was very similar to the anti-Semitic racial laws promulgated by the Nazis, that were derived from laws and practices adopted throughout Europe during the medieval period.  Note that the Nazis and their collaborators throughout Europe during WWII murdered Jews based on their “racial” characteristics and they were not concerned with their religious beliefs (many were descended from families that had converted to Christianity generations before) .

Another example, was that in the former Soviet Union Jews were classified as a nationality, although they were the only nationality in the former USSR without an endogenous homeland (that’s why Stalin sought to transfer Jews to the artificial homeland of Birobidjan on the remote Chinese border).

In the USA, for purposes of “affirmative action,” certain groups (tribes or nations) are designated officially to be “minorities,” including Blacks, Hispanics (Spanish-speakers), American Indians (indigenous peoples) and certain Pacific Islanders (from US possessions. such as Guam).  Jews are not considered a “minority” in this respect, because they were not considered to need special treatment or help, they were too successful.  But, this designation led to ridiculous anomalies, such as that very wealthy immigrants to the US from Spain or Africa, could receive government financial support as a “minority,” but poor Jewish immigrants, from for example the former USSR, could not!

In a recent case in the USA, a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity was refused a job as a coach by a Louisiana Baptist College because of his “Jewish blood.”  He sued them on the grounds of racial discrimination and the Federal Judge found in his favor.  The Judge specifically noted that in this case his religious views were not considered, only his national/racial origin as a Jew.

There are those who decry the passing of this Nation-State Bill into law.  Among them are (1) Arabs, including Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Arabs, who have called it racial discrimination and “an apartheid law.”  However, this is nonsense, not only does the Bill itself recognise the rights of minorities in Israel (there are Arab Muslims, Christians of many denominations, Druse, Circassian, etc.), but also this Law in no way changes the other Basic Laws of Israel that include democracy and the rights of minorities.  Also, note that most Muslim countries define themselves as Muslim and do not allow minority rights, and the PA has stated that any future Palestine State would exclude all Jews!       (2) Western liberal Jews and their Israeli counterparts, who would like Israel to be defined as “the State of all its people.”  It is precisely why this Law was necessary, to prevent the watering down of the unique Jewish nature of the State of Israel by such all-inclusive sentiments.   (3) The Ultra-Orthodox who see this Law as a means to include in the definition of the State of Israel all those non-Orthodox streams (including Conservative and Reform Judaism) that they do not consider to be “Jewish.”  It is precisely to ensure that the State of Israel is the state for all members of the Jewish nation that this Bill was necessary.

Advertisements

Secular Jews

When we marvel at the contributions made by Jews to Western Civilization, in terms of science and technology and Nobel Prizes won far out of proportion to the number of Jews in the world, we should note that they were all or nearly all actually secular Jews. The percentage of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is 22.5% when the Jewish population comprises only 0.2% of the world’s population. That is an astounding statistic and is 11,250% above average (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_Nobel_laureates).

All the famous names are there: Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, Max Born, Hans Bethe, Albert Michaelson, Niels Bohr, Isador Rabi, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Salvador Luria, Arthur Kornberg, Melvin Calvin, Max Perutz, Paul Berg, Walter Gilbert, Sidney Altman, Michael Levitt, Martin Karplus, Paul Ehrlich, Otto Warburg, Ernst Chain, Selman Waxman, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Marshall Nirenberg, Julius Axelrod, David Baltimore, Rosalyn Yalow, Gertrude Elion, Harold Varmus, Ada Yonath,, etc, etc. and in literature, Boris Pasternak, Saul Bellow, Elias Canetti, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nadine Gordimer, Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), and so on and so on.  The world we live in would not be the same without them.  No other human group has made anywhere near a comparable contribution to Western Civilization, and I mention also Freud and Marx, and I point our that most if not all of them were secular and not religious Jews.  This is a phenomenon that has hardly been mentioned in courses on Western Civilization.  The encounter of the Jewish mind with modernity is a subject worthy of recognition and study (see for example “Jewish Excellence” IsBlog July 9, 2015 and http://jackcohenart.com/Articles/catalyst.pdf).

Similarly with the creation of the State of Israel, almost all the leaders of Zionism were non-religious,, including Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Yair Stern, and so on.  There were exceptions such as Menachem Begin, who could pass as Orthodox.  The vast majority of those who came to live in Israel and established kibbutzim and towns were secular and not religious Jews.  I point this out not in any way to denigrate religious Jews, although most of them at first opposed Zionism and assimilation into Western society.  But I emphasize that the meeting of the secular Jewish mind with Western norms of freedom of enquiry produced a burst of creativity the likes of which have never been seen before.  And this is still continuing.

Messianic Jews?

This blog post was initiated because of an article that appeared in The Jerusalem Post on  “Will Israel Ever Accept Messianic Jews?” by Tamara Zieve (Dec 16) and the many letters that appeared responding to it.  The question posed was are “Messianic Jews” really Jews?   Can they be considered Jews under the Law of Return to become Israelis, can they be accepted as halachically Jewish?

The answers to these questions are complicated by the fact that the use of the word “Jew” is ambiguous.  It refers both to someone of Jewish nationality and someone who believes in the Jewish religion.  The Jewish religion happens to be the characteristic belief system of the people defined as the Jewish people, that became in time a nation and ultimately returned as a people to their own State of Israel.

Halachically there is no question that a person born of a Jewish mother, whatever he or she believes, is a Jew in the national sense.  This is in effect a racial definition, like someone being born Italian, but not necessarily being Catholic.   But, when it comes to belief, that is a different matter.  Because of three reasons, someone who believes in the Christian religion, i.e. accepts the divinity of Jesus and his teachings, cannot be considered a Jew; 1. Such a belief system is unacceptable to any person who claims to be a believer in Judaism; 2. Some members of these cults, such as Jews for Jesus, are not halachically Jewish and it is important for such a  person to prove that he or she is born Jewish to be accepted as such; 3. These Christian sects that call themselves “Jews” are in fact proselytizing and seek to convert Jews, and this is illegal in Israel.

So for these reasons it is certain that the Rabbinate would not accept someone as halachically Jewish, unless they can prove that they are born of a Jewish mother, do not accept non-Judaic  beliefs (such as that Jesus is the son of God) and that they are not intending to attempt to convert other Jews to their beliefs.  Likewise, the Jewish State of Israel has the sovereign right to reject the entry of anyone they choose for whatever reason and these three reasons are acceptable reasons.

Someone who is a so-called Messianic Jew, who fails to realize the depth of feeling among real Jews, that this insidious compromise, that someone who is born Jewish is in fact attempting to subvert Jews and Judaism, after our bloody history with Christianity, and Islam, should ask for forgiveness.

The Jewish Transformation

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the divergence of interests between the State of Israel and Diaspora Jews, particularly American Jews. This has crystallized around the dispute about access to the Western Wall, supposedly the holiest shrine in Judaism, the remnants of the Temple in Jerusalem, that was built over 2000 years ago.  The Government of PM Netanyahu has reneged on an agreement to allow non-Orthodox Jews access to pray at this shrine.

But, this dispute goes even deeper, because it is part of the question of what it means to be a Jew.  As I have argued before, much of the problem comes from the ambiguity of the word “Jew.”  It has three meanings, it denotes a national group, an ethnic group, and a religious group.  Failure to come to terms with these distinctions leads to much confusion.

Originally a Jew was someone from the Kingdom of Judea.  They had a distinct national identity, a unique ethnic culture and a characteristic religion, Judaism.   When their nation-state was destroyed by the Romans in 70 ce, they lost their national identity, but were kept together by the other two aspects. But, as we know, the Jews never stopped yearning for a return to their own homeland, which was a desire for a return to nationhood.

When this was accomplished after much persecution and suffering in 1948, the sovereign State of Israel was reborn.  But, Jews in the Diaspora remained an ethnic and religious minority.  The test is that there is a distinction between Jewish and Israeli Americans.  They may share values and a religion in common, but whereas Jewish Americans remain an ethnic-religious minority, Israeli Americans are a national minority, like French, Anglo and Italian Americans.  Jews still remain sui generis, their nationality remains that of their country of citizenship, not that of the sovereign Jewish State.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Reawakening

I have written and just self-published a book on the subject of the Bnei Anousim or descendants of “marranos” entitled “The Reawakening: the Re-emergence of Jews after 500 years of Spanish-Portuguese Catholic Persecution,” which is available on Amazon.com (at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073MJWJ2R ).

This is not a large book (150 pages), but I believe it is a unique one.  As far as I know it is the first time that a collection of personal stories of individuals who are descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in Spain or Portugal some 500 years ago have been brought together.  The similarities and differences in their stories makes for fascinating reading.  How they delved back through history using their own family histories, genealogy and DNA analysis is enlightening.

Here is an excerpt:  Astonishingly, there are millions of people in the world today who retain remnants of Jewish traditions after as long as 500 years, but are often completely unaware of their Jewish origins. They are descendants of those Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity mostly during the period 1391-1492 in Spain and during the mass forced-conversion during 1497 in Portugal. They were known as conversos or New Christians or pejoratively as “marranos.” In Hebrew they are known as Anousim (coerced) and their contemporary descendants are known as Bnei Anousim.

Now that democracy and enlightenment have finally come to the Hispanic Catholic world, and with the access to information on the internet and with universal education, many of these Bnei Anousim are coming forward to reclaim their ancestral heritage.  They are motivated by curiosity about their origins and unusual customs passed down through the generations and by a desire to right the wrongs of history when they discover that their ancestors were tortured and died for their beliefs.  Out of the millions (some estimate as many as 20 million) persons of Jewish origin throughout the Hispanic world, this then is the story of some of those who are returning to the Jewish people and/or to Judaism.

I met most of the people profiled in this book (10 out of 13) through my activities with the Inst. for Sefardi and Anousim Studies at Netanya Academic College.  This book has a motive, to bring to the attention of the Jews of the world the fact that there is a growing number of people emerging throughout the Spanish-Portuguese world, from S. America to Goa, from Majorca to New Mexico, who are rediscovering their Jewish roots.  In my opinion this could become a  movement that could be as important as the Soviet Jewry movement was for the future recovery of the Jewish people and for Israel.

The Conversion Crisis in Israel

Rabbi Seth Farber is a Modern Orthodox Rabbi who graduated from NYU, was ordained at the Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University and obtained  a PhD from Hebrew University, Jerusalem, in 1991.   He founded ITIM (The Right to Live Jewish) in 2002 to oppose the alienation of many Israeli Jews from their religious traditions (see http://www.itim.org.il ).  Their interactions with the religious establishment are often accompanied by negative experiences and alienation.   He spoke at Netanya AACI on “The Conversion Crisis in Israel.”

There is a complication in Israeli Jewish life that causes serious problems.  Many immigrants to Israel, especially from the former Soviet Union (FSU) are Jewish on their father’s side, and the Israeli Law of Return requires only one grandparent to be authentically Jewish.  But, Jewish religious law requires matrilineal descent, i.e. the mother must be Jewish.  So there are many FSU immigrants who became Israeli citizens, and fought in the IDF, but who are not considered halachically Jewish by the Rabbinate, and hence by the State.  They can risk their life for the country, but they cannot be accepted as Jewish by the country, and consequently they cannot marry a Jewish woman or participate in many civil activities.  This situation affects ca. 364,000 individuals, ca. 5.8% of the Israeli population, not an inconsiderable number.

Of course, these “half-Jewish non-Jews ” can convert, but often there are problems put in their way.  It is as if the Rabbinate don’t want them to become halachically Jewish.  Under Jewish religious law (halacha) it is forbidden to treat a convert any differently than a born Jew (with matrilineal descent).  So for example, the IDF established a conversion program that converts ca. 800 soldiers a year.  But, although this program is under the religious authority of the Rabbinate, in many cases Rabbis have refused to accept the conversion of soldiers as legitimate, and sometimes require them to take more courses before getting married to a halachic Jew.

Then there are the problems faced by Israeli Jews who go abroad and marry someone who is not Jewish.  If they return to Israel and the spouse wishes to convert, the Rabbinate puts all sorts of hurdles in their way, sometimes making it almost impossible.  It used to be that they had to convert only with an Orthodox Rabbi in their locality, but after ITIM brought a case to the Supreme Court this limitation was overthrown and now they can choose a Rabbi anywhere in Israel, which makes the situation much easier.  Every year there are about 500 such cases in Israel.  There are also several hundred of cases per year of individuals converting with a Conservative or Reform Rabbi in Israel, although these conversions are not recognized by the Orthodox Rabbinate.

There are also many cases of individuals who have converted abroad and who come to Israel expecting to be accepted as Jewish by the Rabbinate and the State, and who find their certificates of conversion, even by a recognized Orthodox Rabbi, are not recognized in Israel.  This is in many cases unacceptable and is often due to incompetence or desire to receive bribes by the officials of the Rabbinate.  However, often people who are sincere convert sand who have lived as Jews for many years find that when they come to Israel, they are not only not accepted as Jews, but can even be deported because their visas are for only a short stay.  ITIM takes their cases which very often end up in court.

I raised the issue of the Bnei Anousim (descendants of forced Sefardi converts to Christianity) who sometimes can establish their matrilineal descent through documentation, but usually have a very hard time convincing the Rabbinate.  There are hundreds if not thousands of such people a year, and very often they are regarded as unwelcome by the Rabbinate and the State.  It should be pointed out that the concept of Orthodoxy in Judaism is only ca. 200 years old and stems from Germany, and in order to retain strict adherence to halacha many thousands of people who wish to rejoin the Jewish people are being denied their sincere wish.  Can Israel afford to continue in this way?  ITIM seeks to help these people and establish more accepting civil regulations.

The Carvajal Manuscript

The most amazing find after about 75 years is the discovery of the 400 year old Carvajal Manuscript that went missing from the National Library in Mexico in the 1930’s.  It was found  after it was put up for sale in London and New York, and is now being returned to Mexico.

Luis de Carvajal was a New-Christian, a descendent of forced Jewish converts to Christianity known as “marranos” (or anousim in Hebrew) who fled Spain to escape persecution by the Inquisition.  He led an expedition of a group of several hundred New Christians to the Spanish colony of Mexico where they had bought land in the then remote areas of northern Mexico, in what is now near the US-Mexico border.  However, the Inquisition were aware of his plan and he was arrested in 1595 for being a “Judaizer” a capital offense, meaning that in one of many ways he was suspected of remaining a practising Jew.

During his time in prison he wrote an account that is probably the oldest such manuscript from the Americas in existence.  His memorias written under the name of Joseph Lumbroso, his original Jewish name, consists of personal statements that state his true opinions and expose the depredations of the Inquisition of the Catholic Church.  He was indeed a Jew who retained beliefs that were Jewish.  He was tortured by the Inquisitors and forced to reveal his plans.  He was burned at the stake in 1596 at the age of 30 in a process called an auto-da-fe, or trial by fire,  and another 120 people, his whole family and his friends, were arrested, tortured and many of them murdered.

But, some of his followers managed to escape the Inquisition and indeed lived along the region that is now the Mexican-US border area and practised a form of Judaism there for hundreds of years.  Outwardly they were Catholics, but inwardly they remained secret Jews.  I happened to meet a descendent of one of Carvajal’s followers.  Her grandfather had become a Baptist minister in the US and his congregation consisted like himself of descendants of conversos who escaped Catholicism to become Protestant and practiced a form of Judaized Christianity.  Her family moved to CA and she converted to Judaism and made Aliyah and lived in Netanya for a while.  There is a large community of such anousim living in the region of New Mexico and the US northwest.  They were discovered and written about by Stanley Hordes in his iconic book “To the End of the Earth: A History of the Crypto-Jews of New Mexico.”