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Demographic Solutions

By Rabbi Michael Boyden

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jerusalem Post . Visit www.jpost.com .

Jerusalem, Aug. 7, 2003. The vision of Israel as a Jewish state belongs more to the realm of fantasy and wishful thinking than to reality. Herzl may have seen Israel as "a land without people for a people without a land," but things have turned out to be more complicated.

Many parts of the Galilee are populated predominantly by Arabs, while Beduin settlements exist in large numbers in many parts of the country, particularly in the Negev. The Beduin's birthrate is considerably higher than the Jewish population's. Current demographic figures show that almost 20 percent of Israel's citizens are not Jewish.

To their numbers must be added the more than 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the 110,000 foreign workers, and at least a similar number (if not more) of resident aliens who live in Israel illegally.

Current attempts to deny citizenship to the Palestinian spouses of Israelis are the first indicator of what is likely to become a major issue in the years ahead. For if Israel finally reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the rate of intermarriage between Jews and Muslims will no doubt increase dramatically as social and business contacts develop between Israelis and their Arab neighbors.

It is time we faced the truth: Intermarriage is already a reality in the Jewish state--albeit nowhere near Diaspora proportions. And it will become a growing Israeli problem in the years ahead. The question is: What can we do about it?

I must confess that I have a personal interest. I made aliya (moved to Israel) because I wanted to live in a Jewish state. I am interested in the preservation of our national and religious identity and see it threatened by the forces of secularism that have resulted in a significant number of Israelis becoming estranged from their Jewish heritage.

Hardly surprisingly, some of those young Israelis who travel the world following national service find themselves returning home with partners from the Philippines, South America, Europe, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

The problem isn't new. In the old days kibbutzniks would befriend volunteers and end up marrying them. However, today the issue is far more widespread.

So what can we do about it? I believe that our response must take place on three levels.

Firstly, education. There is much to be done in providing secular Israelis with a better understanding of their Jewish heritage. The Shenhar Report commissioned by the Ministry of Education indicated how important it is to instill more Judaism into Israel's school system. Unfortunately, to date, little has been done to implement the report's proposals.

Secondly, conversion must be much more readily available to the non-Jewish partners of Israeli citizens. If they have chosen to throw in their lot with the Jewish people we must encourage them to find their way into Judaism and not place innumerable obstacles in their path.

Thirdly, we need to engage in a program of outreach to the non-Jewish population of Israel. Resident aliens are not a new problem for us. When the Children of Israel came out of Egypt, there were plenty of non-Jews among them.

However, the Torah tells us, "If there is a resident alien among you who wants to participate in the Passover sacrifice, then circumcise the males (in the family) and then he may participate and shall be considered as a native of the land." It seems like the Torah was much better at integrating the stranger than we are today.

Such a program of welcoming the outsider could make a significant difference to the demographic balance of Israeli society, and could help create the Jewish state that we want. Better we take action now than leave it until it is too late.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Rabbi Michael Boyden is director of the Beit Din of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis.

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