The “Non-Jewish Jews”

In Israel, one in 25 people is both Jewish and not Jewish. They are Jewish enough to be allowed to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but not Jewish enough to be recognized by the Orthodox establishment that oversees lifecyle events like marriage, divorce and burial. They are what Israelis call the “non-Jewish Jews.”

A JTA story by Dina Kraft details the conundrum faced by these 320,000 people, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children. The problem is that the Law of Return uses a liberal definition of Jewish identity–you have a Jewish grandparent or are married to someone who does–while the Orthodox establishment uses a much stricter definition–your mother is Jewish. The Law of Return assumes that if you’re Jewish enough to be persecuted, you’re Jewish enough to need a Jewish homeland. But the Orthodox authorities change the rules of the game once you get there. For Russian immigrants, that means exchanging one form of government discrimination for another.

While the “non-Jewish Jews” may not be Jewish enough to marry another Jew, get a recognized divorce or be buried in a Jewish cemetery, they are Israeli enough to face the requirement of mandatory military service.

And conversion is not a realistic option either, since the Orthodox control the conversion process as well and require all converts to adopt a traditional religious lifestyle.

Just as with the intermarried in the U.S., Israel will only solve its demographic problems when it relaxes its definitions of what is appropriate Jewish behavior–or appropriate Jewish parentage.

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One thought on “The “Non-Jewish Jews”

  1. The ‘demographic crisis’ in both Israel and among American Jews is being solved by the ultra-Orthodox who are doubling their numbers every 10 years, and who have towns where the median age is just 15, the lowest of any (5000+ pop.) municipality in the US

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