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Are Palestinians 'Lost Jews' Too?

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Members of the 'lost tribe' of Bnei Menashe from India wait at Israel's Ben Gurion airport to start the immigration process as Jews under the Law of Return. 20 June 2006
Members of the 'lost tribe' of Bnei Menashe from India wait at Israel's Ben Gurion airport to start the immigration process as Jews under the Law of Return. 20 June 2006Credit: Dan Keinan
Ori Weisberg
Ori Weisberg

Last week, a committee in Israel's Diaspora Affairs ministry advocated a new visa status for non-Jews claiming descent from Jews, and for members of "emerging Jewish communities."

The latter comprises non-Jews around the globe who have adopted some Jewish religious practices, with or without converting. Apparently, the already available extendable three-month tourist visa available to Jews and non-Jews alike, who visit Israel to learn about the country and about Judaism, is insufficient. People coming for year-long programs of study, who often stay longer, simply renew their tourist visas. But this committee wants to create a new extended visa status for these "Jew-ish" non-Jews.

The implications of this new status are potentially significant for Israel’s identity, for this new status certainly seems like a new outreach initiative to shift the demographic balance by locating new sources for aliyah, Jewish immigration. 

Izuchukwu Onuchukwu, who self-identifies as Jewish, stands beside the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Abuja, Nigeria.Credit: Shai Afsai

But in this case, Israel seems to be seeking out people who are only potential Jews. Is Israel truly a Jewish state if it needs to continue to manufacture a Jewish majority? Or is it a state run by a particular Jewish regime with a specific national-religious ideology?

One of Zionism’s goals was to normalize Jewish nationhood so that Jews could become "a nation like all the nations." At what point will this country be allowed, like all the nations, to develop an organic culture and define itself diversely from the ground up, as opposed to facing constant efforts to dictate cultural norms and identity from above? There are now over 6 million Jews living here. Isn’t that sufficient to foster and maintain the state’s Jewishness as a cultural force within a state run in Hebrew? 

Zionism began as the secular nationalist movement of a people that had historically defined itself through religious texts and traditions. Rabbinic law defines its members according to criteria of either birth to a Jewish mother or a process called giyyur, etymologically connoting something akin to naturalization, but effected through religious conversion.

While Zionism has emphasized national and cultural aspects of Jewishness over religious faith and tradition, anti-Zionists have frequently rejected the idea that Jews constitute a national community, reducing a complex ethno-religious identity to a religious confession.

Achievement of statehood in 1948 brought the complexity of Jewish self-definition to the fore. Its founding document declares that it "will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles." The right of Jews to immigrate to Israel was formalized soon after in the 1950 Law of Return, which left eligibility vague, in part because the Nazi-era Nuremburg Laws cared little for Jewish self-definition, and marked anyone with a single Jewish grandparent for persecution and death.

Members of the Bnei Menashe in Churachandpur village, India, during an Israeli Independence Day celebration.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya

Yet later in the decade, the question of Jewish identity was tested by Shmuel Rufeisen (also known as Brother Daniel), who had converted from Judaism to Christianity while evading the Nazi in a Polish convent, becoming a Carmelite Friar and ordained priest. Rufeisen applied for immigration under the Law of Return. After being refused, he appealed, asserting that his Jewish identity was separate from his religious faith.

In 1962, the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the refusal, determining finally that conversion to another religion nullified Jewish identity. Rufeisen was allowed to naturalize, but not under the Law of Return. In 1970, a Jewish Ancestry Amendment to the Law of Return specified eligibility as extending to "a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew," while maintaining the exclusion of any Jew who "voluntarily changed his/her religion."

What's behind this new advocacy for special status for some non-Jews, including some without any Jewish descent or affiliation, in the Israeli government?

The Diaspora Affairs minister, Naftali Bennett, leads the extreme nationalist, explicitly annexationist, religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party, devoted to the expansion of Jewish demography and territory. It is difficult to read the report’s recommendations in isolation of that agenda.

The committee's recommendations raise numerous questions. If the only connection between "emerging Jews" and the Jewish people is religious affinity, what happens to the Zionist insistence that Jews are primarily a national community? If the purpose of encouraging their extended stay is to encourage conversion, then isn't the state taking on the roleof explicit proselytization, something Jews have historically avoided with very few exceptions?

A participant in a parade of international Christian Zionist groups wears a shirt with the Star of David and carries a banner depicting Jerusalem. Jerusalem, September 24, 2002Credit: REUTERS

Furthermore, which religious affinities mark an "emerging" Jewish community? What about American Christian Zionists who adopt some Jewish rituals and accoutrements, or Messianic Jewish communities that call their churches synagogues, often don kippot and tallitot, use Hebrew in their liturgy, and observe Jewish holidays? Membership in such communities often includes both people born Jewish and non-Jews.

But Messianic Jews were explicitly excluded from the Law of Return in 1989, when the Supreme Court classified Messianic Judaism as a different faith, thus positioning its adherents as having "voluntarily changed" their religion. And Israel's rabbinic courts have just upheld that principle, ruling that Israeli born Messianic Jews may not be married through the rabbinate, as they are considered converts to Christianity. Could this push towards "emerging Jews" lead to the bizarre scenario that non-Jewish Messianic community members be eligible for this new status while their fellow Jewish-born congregants remain ineligible?

Most significant for the demographic tournament, in which this and all previous governments have engaged, is the question of the Palestinians.

If we are going to extend special status to people who claim descent from Jews who converted centuries ago, one might note that a very high percentage of Palestinians claim descent from the ancient Israelites, with the support of DNA evidence. Are they also lost Jews? And as such, shouldn’t members of the Palestinian diaspora be eligible for extended visas and special status?

Ori Weisberg holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and has lectured at Hebrew University, Bar Ilan University, and Seminar HaKibbutzim and works as an academic translator and editor in various disciplines. He is also a musician and composer and lives in Jerusalem.

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