5 Million? 6 Million? What Counts as 1?

Recent reports that the American Jewish population is well over 6 million have been taken far too seriously, writes demographer Pini Herman:

With all the pronouncements about the newly found million Jews we don’t know anything more about one single Jew in the US than we did before this “PEGGING” of US Jews at the over 6.4 million mark rather than the previous 5.2 million which would have made Israel at 5.8 million Jews the largest Jewish population in the world.

It all hinges on how hundreds of thousands of US respondents answered the generic religion survey question on dozens of general surveys in the US and whether Jewish screening questions were properly applied in more specialized Jewish population studies.

One problem with a simple survey question, Dr. Herman notes, is " false positives, that is non-Jews claiming to be Jewish". A high likely rate of false positives, he argues, renders the claim that American Jewry is now larger than Israeli Jewry nothing more than a "Jewish demographic castle in the air".

While an Israel-Diaspora horse race is always fun sport, I am much more interested in an implicit problem underlying (and, to my mind, undermining) this entire discussion. Namely: what is a false positive, and what definition makes that determination?

It's easy enough  to think of a person who might strike you (and me, and every Jew we know) as a clear false positive. There do exist, for example, Christians with no Jewish ancestry who nonetheless call themselves Jews, taking the traditional Christian doctrine that, since Jesus, the church is the new people of Israel a little more literally than most Christians do.

My assertion that such people are not really Jews is, however, entirely subjective -- as is Dr. Herman's implicit assertion that there is even such a thing as a false positive. After all, there are many possible definitions of Jewishness, and one of them might well be that anyone who claims to be Jewish is Jewish, by virtue of claiming so. This definition would admit our over-literal Christians, as well as Messianic Jews, as well as anyone with a Jewish fourth-cousin-in-law who wants to identify as Jewish, as well as anyone else who wants to jump instantly on the bandwagon for any reason at all, with no requirements of any kind.

I think most Jews would find this definition too permissive, and I certainly join them. Indeed, my personal views of the definition of Jewishness follow my personal devotion to the Modern Orthodox type of interpretation of halakhah -- which means I personally find the definition(s) used by the Reform movement far too permissive as well. Yet most of America's Reform Jews (who far outnumber the American Orthodox) would strongly disagree with me. My point is that it is impossible to count Jews in any context without first defining Jewishness, and defining Jewishness is an issue upon which the Jewish community as a whole is vehemently and painfully splintered.

What can be said, then, of an argument between some scholars counting 5.2 million Jews and others counting 6.5, when all five-or-six-million Jews are in the middle of a massive argument about what it means to belong to the group being counted? I'm sure each of the research teams in question used precise definitions, and I imagine in this era of sophisticated social science the definitions used in various different studies most often match one another. But since no one definition can command anything even close to consensus among the Jewish people, of how much value is all the precision?

5.2 million Jews... 6.5 million Jews... Maybe if we could agree about the definition of one Jew, the rest would be a little bit easier.

(See also: the October 2010 issue of Sh'ma, focusing on "Counting Jews" and our August 2011 newsletter, focusing on the Jewish Population.)

The Israeli Ad Campaign and Some Essential Truths

(Cross-posted at Makom.)

The imbroglio over these videos should not obscure some essential truths.

One is that massive numbers of American Jewish people and families are indeed being lost to the Jewish People, both through cultural challenges and to the downstream impact of intermarriage, as it seems that less than 10% of the grandchildren of marriages between Jews and non-Jews identify as Jews.

Second, the Israeli Jewish public is convinced that high levels of assimilation characterize American Jewry.

Third, that perception is a matter of national pride among Israelis, one rooted very deeply in the classic Zionist ideology that undergird the Yishuv and then the State in its early days.

There’s a flip side. American Jews are convinced that Israelis exhibit tendencies that are anti-democratic, super ethnocentric, excessively nationalistic, and borderline theocratic (some Israelis would agree). For their part, Israeli Jews take offense when American Jews give voice to their critique of Israeli society.

In short, (many) Israeli Jews think American Jewry is excessively universalist and cosmopolitan. And (some) American Jews think that Israeli Jewish society is excessively particularist and parochial.

A good and honest dialogue around these issues would be helpful and healthy. We Jews, despite our cultural penchant for discourse and disputation, haven’t quite figured out how to conduct that dialogue.

A Nonprofit Leader Who Really Did Shut It Down

Ephraim Gopin, writing for eJewish Philanthropy:

I read with great interest the point-counterpoint by Robert Evans, Avrum Lapin and Seth Chalmer featured on eJewish Philanthropy recently. As someone who has recommended to a nonprofit Board to cease operations, I feel I have a unique perspective on the issue...

...There are too many nonprofits and institutions in Israel. I firmly believe that merging nonprofits with similar missions will create a more stable, vibrant sector where long term well-being and strategy are dominant, as opposed to the pettiness of “kavod” – honor – taking center stage...

...Israel has 40,000 registered nonprofits – 5-10,000 of which are active at any given time. We all know that a great percentage of them depend on overseas funding for survival. With the world recession and federations keeping more funds at home, we should be REDUCING the number of nonprofits here seeking funding overseas.

I am well aware of the dangers of merging – job and salary slashing being the worst. However, we should encourage this behavior because the alternative is worse: nonprofits who are debt-ridden, can’t pay salaries or suppliers, may have to shut down. In that case, everyone is out of a job. Donors and foundations should be pushing similar mission-oriented nonprofits to merge, as a means of survival if nothing else.

Lest you say I talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, here’s my story: I recommended to the Board of a nonprofit I headed to cease operations.

When I settled into the CEO chair and began looking over the financials, I was shocked: the organization was in major debt. When I sat with the CFO, we tried every which way to avoid the “cut, slash, burn and trim” method of nonprofit management. To no avail; the pit was too deep.

Finally, after all options had been exhausted, I sat with the Board and told them unequivocally: We need to cease operations immediately, declare bankruptcy and try to find another nonprofit to take over operating the facility... In this manner, we hoped to save as many staff jobs as possible and work on an arrangement where the nonprofit who takes over would repay the debt to suppliers.

I know there are too many nonprofits, too many institutions in Israel. Some are in debt, are behind in paying staff and suppliers and yet they refuse to shut down. I also know that upper management would never “fire themselves.” But something has to be done because, when a recession hits, the whole sector suffers enough. The problem is compounded when, in reality, a little forethought would have made the sector stronger, not weaker.

Gopin's perspective and unique experience is a welcome addition to the conversation, and a welcome reminder that waste and redundancy truly are present and problematic.

It's worth noting that the nonprofit sectors in Israel and the United States are quite different. The American combination of unprecedented commitment to private charity along with a comparatively meager government social safety net makes the US nonprofit sector rather a different beast from its counterparts not only in Israel, but really everywhere else, at least in many ways.

For the Jewish nonprofit sector in particular, it is also of great import that in America, voluntary associations, congregations and nonprofit organizations constitute the entirety of Jewish communal expression, whereas in Israel the very State itself is a Jewish organization.

These two differences -- in the relationship of nonprofits to the State, and in the relationship of Jewishness to the State -- are bound to affect the ways in which each country's Jewish nonprofit sector conceives of itself, and is likely to affect questions of efficiency, redundancy, ideological diversity, and more.

For more reading on charitable sector leaders intentionally putting themselves out of a job, I suggest reading up on the AVI CHAI Foundation's decision to spend down and sunset itself.

Rogan Kersh: Israel Remarkably Relevant in American Politics

In the second installment of our Office Hours series, Prof. Rogan Kersh of NYU Wagner discusses the place of Israel in American politics.

 

Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem

Happy Yom Yerushalayim! On this day in 1967, Israel captured and reunited Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

 Here are just a few of many BJPA publications having to do with Jerusalem:

1967 Borders, and How to Lie With Maps

Israel, sans Green Line

As Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere continue to mull over President Obama's Middle East speech last Thursday, and his subsequent explanation at the AIPAC conference, "1967 borders" have become the topic du jour.

In 2008, Hannah Weitzer of Windows-Channels for Communication observed in Sh'ma that Diaspora Jews are accustomed to looking at maps of Israel which do not mark the Palestinian territories, or the "Green Line" that represents the 1967 border. "Drawing in the internationally recognized border between Israel proper and the occupied territories is not a quick fix for all of the issues surrounding Israel education," she writes. "But teaching with maps that lack the green line is indicative of a larger gap between fact and myth that runs rampant in teaching Israel to Diaspora Jews."

But if a map without the Green Line is deceptive, might not a map featuring a hard, solid, 1967-style Green Line be equally deceptive? In the same issue of Sh'ma, history professor Derek J. Penslar cautions against oversimplification in cartography:

"I have a colleague at the University of Toronto who teaches a course called 'How to Lie With Maps.' Supporters of Israel might well suggest as required reading for this course Palestinian maps that show a unitary Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan with no sign of Israel’s existence. Yet Israeli maps, and those produced by and for Diaspora Jews, rarely mark the Green Line that constitutes the country’s internationally recognized borders."

Yet is the answer simply to replace one simplistic map with another simplistic map?

"The best way... would be through maps that faithfully depict the constant presence of Jews and Arabs in the same landscape... Superimposing maps would display the geographic structure and distribution of each community along with the points of intersection between them."

Penslar's chief concern is diachronic -- he wants to help people to understand the development of Arab and Jewish populations in Israel/Palestine over time. But I think his point is even more interesting if taken synchronically -- as a model for looking at the present moment. The reality of Jewish settlement blocs, along with Arab-majority population centers in Israel proper, makes the prospect of a neat and tidy border along the Green Line completely untenable. Besides which, the Green Line was not set in stone or decided upon by any kind of treaty or decree -- it's basically a cease-fire line marking troop positions during a pause (lasting from 1949 until 1967) in a war that started in 1948 and has never actually ended. President Obama, of course, recognizes this, which is why he included the phrase "mutually-agreed swaps" in his speech.

In any case, Penslar's point at its core is that a simple map is a deceptive map, and I think perhaps observers of all but the most extreme positions can agree with that.

Complexity

From the J-Vault: An American Zionist Vision from 1948

J-Vault logo

This week from the J-Vault: Implications of the New Developments in Palestine for Jewish Culture (September 1948)

Today Israelis, Jews, and Zionists all over the world (both Jewish and non-Jewish) celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, and this week's J-Vault selection was published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service in September 1948 during a cease-fire between the second and third phases of Israel's War of Independence. In the midst of that uneasy lull in battle, which would yield to open war again one month later, Alexander M. Dushkin focused not on the immediate military, diplomatic or humanitarian situation of the newly declared State, but on the place of that new State in the wider scheme of Jewish history and culture, as well as in Diaspora life -- particularly in America.

"My thesis," wrote Dushkin, "is that the reconstituted Jewish Homeland—both in the State of Israel and in international Jerusalem— will have a three-fold effect on Jewish cultural development in America. It should help us (a) clarify the character of our culture; (b) change our attitude toward it and (c) enhance our own cultural creativity." The result, he predicted, would be that world Jewry will assume a new overall shape. "Our Jewish world of today and tomorrow is like a great ellipse with two foci—one focus is in ourselves, in American life and effort; the other is in the Hebraic cultural center in the new Palestine. Culturally, they are both necessary to each other, and their spiritual symbiosis is our grand task in the days ahead."

Read more...

 

J-Vault logo

Cohen's Comments: Birthright & J Street

This week, Birthright Israel rejected J Street's bid to operate its own Birthright trip presenting Israel from a progressive viewpoint. (See this article.)

In the first installment of a BJPA original video series we're calling Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen says Birthright is wrong not only for rejecting J Street in particular, but for its stance on the broader question of operating trips which present particular values and perspectives. Watch the video!

 

"Resisting Re-ghettoization" Recap

Wagner Today, the student blog of NYU Wagner, provides a useful summary of yesterday's BJPA roundtable ("Resisting Re-ghettoization: From Without and Within") with journalist Yossi Klein Halevi:

The great post-Holocaust achievements were power and integration into the world community (and for American Jewry, the public space). Now both those achievements are under assault -- from without and from within. The legitimacy of Jewish power is questioned not only by the UN Human Rights Council, but also by increasing numbers of Jews. The integration of Jews into the world community is also under assault from without and within -- the diplomatic ghettoization of Israel, the growing power of the haredim and the religious right in Israel.

He emphasized that we need to re-commit the American Jewish-Israeli relationship to reaffirming Jewish power and the Jewish place in the community of nations. This means resisting the demonization from without -- and strengthening Jewish pluralism, especially religious pluralism in Israel.

Click here for their full summary, with a few pictures.

Tablet Magazine also covered the event.

Here came, for me, the most useful part of the conversation, because I got to see, in Halevi, something I had heretofore only read about: The widespread Israeli understanding of the 2005 unilateral withdrawal from all the Gaza settlements and a few in the West Bank as a complete disaster, which must never be repeated. “I don’t want Netanyahu to give anything away for free,” Halevi insisted, his voice carrying a harsh undercurrent for the only time that afternoon. The problem with extending the freeze for nothing in return, he said, is that the last time the settlements were put on hold—indeed, they were eliminated—in exchange for nothing, there were rockets; and then there was an attempt to stop the rockets; and then there was a near-total absence of international support for stopping the rockets; and then there was the Goldstone Report.

Read Marc Tracy's excellent overview of and commentary on the roundtable: Resisting ‘Re-Ghettoization’

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1: The Other Israeli Conversion Crisis

With the recent Israeli conversion bill generating controversy related to pluralism in Jewish denominational context, and with the Cordoba House / “Ground Zero Mosque” plan generating controversy related to pluralism in interreligious context, pluralism is very much in public debate right now, whether or not the word is used explicitly in discussing these issues.

But what is pluralism? Let us consult the Oxford English Dictionary:

pluralism
noun
1. a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc. coexist; a political theory or system of power-sharing among a number of political parties.
2. a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.

Within these two definitions I count three basic ideas: coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate(3).

Of course, these three concepts only scratch the surface of potential meanings. Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for pluralism, for its part, lists fifteen definitions or applications of the concept. Clearly, then, pluralism isn’t one thing; it is itself (appropriately enough) plural.

How, then, can we discuss it? Perhaps we ought to begin by examining pluralism in the wild, as it were – in application, or attempted application, to real situations. The BJPA features many documents on the topic of pluralism, some related to intra-Jewish matters, and some to interreligious or intercultural relations. Over the course of a few posts I intend to examine a handful of these documents in an attempt to answer these questions: what do pluralistic solutions entail; and when do they, or don't they, work?

Let us begin with a timely look back to the 1990s. In “Orthodox and Non-Orthodox: How to Square the Circle”, the prolific Daniel J. Elazar notes that the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews constitutes not merely a situation of different approaches, but “two contrary understandings of Judaism”:

The Chief Rabbinate and the Israeli religious establishment, and, for that matter, probably an overwhelming majority of Israelis as well, regardless of their own religious practices, understand Judaism to be an overarching structure, an edifice erected over thousands of years, …a complex but standing structure that technically never changes but is only reinterpreted in a limited way to function within changing realities. For those who believe and observe, this edifice gives them their daily, even hourly, marching orders. For those who observe less or do not observe at all except perhaps at the very margins of the edifice, the edifice still stands and they expect Jewish individuals, when they do act in religious ways, to do so within it. To steal an example from another religion, Judaism is like a great cathedral. It stands there and delivers its religious message whether worshippers enter or not, and while there can be discussions about what are the contents of that message, the character of the edifice is unmistakable.

American non-Orthodox Jews, who are the vast majority in the United States… see Judaism from an American religious perspective that has been shaped by the Protestant experience, as a matter of personal spirituality and belief first and foremost; which means that Jews must begin by personally accepting the fundamental beliefs and traditions of Judaism in some way but then are free to apply them operationally in ways that they find meaningful and satisfying. True, Conservative Judaism accepts the existence of the edifice of Torah and halakhah, but understands Torah more as a constitution than as a detailed code, a constitution which can and must be reinterpreted in every age according to its spirit and not merely according to the plain meaning of the text or something close to it.

Reform Judaism formally does not even accept that. For it, halakhah is not binding but is merely one of the sources of Jewish religious tradition to which attention should be paid…

Addressing an earlier “conversion crisis” (which mirrors the present crisis on certain ways), Elazar endorses the solution of the Neeman Committee, which proposed in 1997 that the Israeli government

create "conversion institutes," to prepare potential converts for conversion. The institutes would be sponsored by the Jewish Agency, and operated jointly by the three denominations. Aspiring converts would attend classes at the institutes but the actual conversion would be performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, according to Orthodox guidelines. With the establishment of these institutes, the Reform and Conservative movements would agree not to perform conversions [in Israel] outside the framework of the institutes.

To Elazar, this solution

is so ingenious and important, precisely because it does appear to square the circle to everyone's advantage in some ways and to everyone's disadvantage in others. The Israeli rabbinical establishment will have to give up its exclusiveness by accepting Reform and Conservative involvement in common operational matters such as training for conversion, performance of marriages, and handling the provision of religious services to the Israeli Jewish population. At the same time, by having a majority in every body making decisions in those areas, they will keep control and be able to honestly claim that the decisions are halakhic from their standpoint and based on their standards. The Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbis will win a measure of recognition as partners in the Jewish religious enterprise, something that has been totally denied to them as movements in Israel in the past, but they will in turn have to accept the ultimate Orthodox power in determining what is halakhah in these matters. Orthodox Jews should be very pleased with this because it will bring Reform Judaism back to the recognition of the binding character of halakhah, at least in Israel, an achievement of no small proportions if their interest is honestly religious and not merely a question of who has political power…

In fact, I would argue that the compromise should not only be agreed to for Israel but for the rest of the world as well, thereby creating a basic and halachic uniformity for issues such as conversion and marriage. That would be a great achievement, especially if in doing so we also recognize that we do live in a world of plural expression.

Personally, I share Elazar’s enthusiasm for the Neeman Committee’s solution, and the wish that such a system could be established for the entire Jewish world. I also believe, however, that the chances of such a system being established, inside or outside Israel, are virtually nil.

First, the non-Orthodox movements do not, by and large, see their decisions about lenient requirements for conversion to Judaism as purely practical measures; they believe they are acting in accordance with important principles related to the deepest meanings of Judaism, and they point to nothing younger than the Book of Ruth as precedent and proof-text for their interpretations. While some non-Orthodox Jews might accept a compromise for the sake of unity, others will stand ready to do battle over these principles. To acquiesce to Orthodox standards of conversion would represent, for many Jews, not merely an inconvenience, but a cowardly surrender to an extremist, unwelcoming and immoral approach to conversion.

As for the Orthodox world, while certain Modern Orthodox Jews might embrace the Neeman model, many Orthodox Jews would reject it as an explicit recognition of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox rabbinate. For these Jews, rabbinic authority is not merely a tool of logistical power; it is a sacred trust deriving from an unbroken chain of leadership which began with Moses, a mantle which has always been fiercely guarded against heterodoxy in order to ensure that the great Tradition which began at Sinai will be neither diluted nor abandoned. To cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis in any way, for these Jews, would be an unconscionable breach in a wall at which no lesser authority than God explicitly commanded the Jewish people to stand guard.

The Neeman Committee model of cooperation, then, asks two significant positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum – one of which dominates the Israeli religious establishment, and the other of which dominates the American religious estalblishment – simply to abandon their core principles. This solution may be desirable to those of us “in the middle,” but is it really pluralism?

Returning to my three-pronged interpretation of the OED’s definition of pluralism above – coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate (3) – it seems so; the Neeman Committee solution fits all three of these concepts. The proposal envisions an Israel in which Jews of all denominations continue to practice (#1); in which rabbis of three of these denominations share power in the conversion process (#2); and in which, since the Israeli government grants all three denominations an official role, all three denominations are given government recognition as being legitimate to some degree (#3).

The reasons that this solution is unlikely to work can also be expressed in terms of the three-pronged definition: both #1 and #3 are unacceptable to the extreme left and the extreme right of the Jewish denominational spectrum, both of which consider one another to be immoral and illegitimate, and each of which wishes that the other would disappear. #2 might be acceptable to the extreme left out of a reluctant pragmatism, but is unacceptable to the extreme right, which sees sharing power with non-Orthodox rabbis as being inherently against God's explicit command. All three elements, then, face considerable opposition.

Can a framework so problematic for so much of the relevant population ever be workable? Is pluralism itself inherently impossible in this context? If not, then (to borrow Elazar's phrase) how can the circle be squared?

Contra Adam Bronfman: No, We Are Not All Jews

Seagram heir and Jewish pluralism advocate Adam Bronfman took to the blogosphere today via the JTA, declaring that "We Are All Jews," and denouncing the recently-tabled Israeli conversion bill, which critics charge would solidify Haredi control over Israeli government recognition of conversions, to the exclusion of non-Orthodox (and non-Haredi Orthodox) conversions. Bronfman writes:

[M]y interaction with the Jewish community and my engagement with Jewish foundations and organizations revealed the problematic use of the term “Jewish peoplehood,” or “klal yisrael.” I often despair and wonder if those words have lost their meaning. Is “Jewish peoplehood” a mere fantasy rather than a reality? The Rotem conversion legislation, that recently caused such an uproar, revealed an ongoing and ugly battle. We have narrowly averted a schism.

As a Jew, I was outraged by the proposed legislation. The State of Israel has no business in affiliating with or endorsing one religious group or dogma over another. When it does so it becomes complicit in the internecine strife that plagues our Jewish discourse and abdicates the responsibility it assumed at the time of its creation. That creation was meant to guarantee existential survival for all Jews, regardless of affiliation, style of worship, or geographic location. Regarding Jewish status, it is the government’s sole responsibility to secure and guard that guarantee...

It is high time for the government to get out of the business of legislating religious preference. Mr. Netanyahu must lead us to a decisive conclusion: ALL Jews enjoy equal status in the eyes of the Israeli government. Anything less is failure.

Bronfman's concern for Jewish unity, and his criticism of schismatic interdenominational battles, are noble and correct. I also share the concern of many critics that the Haredi monopoly on Israeli government definitions of Jewish identity (not to mention marriage) has been harmful, and should be revised. And while I am reticent to take a hard position on a bill I do not fully understand, I trust the judgment of many critics who say that the bill in its most recent form would have exacerbated these problems.

But on the most fundamental level of the issue of Jewish peoplehood, Adam Bronfman is unfortunately, simply, deeply wrong: we are not all Jews.

I am not arguing in favor of the current system, much less of the Rotem conversion bill itself. Nor do I disrespect the impulses behind this position. Bronfman and like-minded commentators take a stance which is wrong, but which is also deserving of real consideration. They speak up on behalf of the values of personal choice, pluralism, mutual respect, and acceptance. These are important values, to be sure, and the status quo in Israel is undeniably detrimental to all of them. But these values are not, cannot be, the only values for which we stand. Sometimes values conflict, and difficult choices must be made.

I share Bronfman's "despair," wondering along with him if the words klal Yisrael "have lost their meaning." That value, the meaning of being Jewish, is the very value which, in this case, conflicts with personal choice and complete pluralism. Either being Jewish has a specific meaning or it doesn't. There can be no neutrality on this matter; not to take a position is to take a position. Something that can be defined as anything is nothing.

If being Jewish is nothing more than a nominal affiliation, which can be chosen by anyone under no particular set of standards, devoid of commitments and obligations -- or, if being Jewish entails powerful commitments to morality and justice, but these commitments are all universal, and identical to general values of societal and personal responsibility --  then participation in Jewish life is trivial, and the creation of a Jewish state in the first place, with all the very real problems that nationalism entails, is irrational and dangerous.

Indeed, there is a serious case to be made for the scrapping of all tribal and national identities. Why persist in defining ourselves in groups at all? Why not document all the beautiful contributions of Judaism in our libraries, museums and universities, alongside the contributions of other extinct tribal identities, and let all individuals simply unite as citizens of the world? Many people, and indeed, many secular Jews, do make this argument.

But I suspect that Bronfman is not among them, since he is passionately and deeply involved in the Jewish communal world. I cannot help but assume, therefore, that Bronfman shares my belief that Judaism brings something vital and specific to the world, not only in the past but in the future, and that therefore there is important and unique value in living a Jewish life. And if living a Jewish life has specific value, must it not also have a specific range of content? Is playing frisbee a Jewish activity, if Jews do it? What about reading the telephone book? What about practicing Islam, or Christianity?

One might argue that I miss the point here -- that while Jewish denominations themselves should indeed create definitions of what it means to be Jewish, the Israeli government ought to take a neutral position between those definitions, allowing anyone to define themselves as Jewish, so that the Jewish state can be a home for all those who identify as Jews.

This policy sounds fine in theory. But here I must ask the obvious questions -- the questions which are dragged into this argument often enough to be tiresome, but which I dare not avoid because they remain powerful: are Jews for Jesus to be counted as Jews by the Israeli government? What about Christians completely unaffiliated with Messianic Judaism, but who claim that, in accordance with their theology, the Christian Church is God's new Israel, and that therefore they ought to be counted as Jews by Israel's government? If the answer is to make a policy defining anyone as Jewish who identifies as Jewish, except for those who believe in other religions, then who gets to decide what counts as another religion? The problem is not solved; the can is merely kicked  down the road. Either someone in the Israeli government makes some kind of definition of what it means to be Jewish -- which means giving up on the ideal of complete pluralism -- or no one in the government makes such a definition, and literally anyone in the world can qualify for the Law of Return.

This question is not purely abstract. With Israel currently confronting a number of issues related to immigration, it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that people who have no Jewish ancestry and no genuine interest in becoming Jewish will claim Judaism purely in order to qualify for the Law of Return, for the sake of escaping poverty. (One could hardly fault such a person in desperate circumstances for taking this course of action.)

Perhaps Bronfman doesn't really mean what he says about the Israeli government getting "out of the business of legislating" religion. Perhaps he recognizes that there is a point at which religious definition must be legislated, but he simply wishes that Haredi rabbis did not have a monopoly on this power. If that was his intended point, then I agree.

But the way we frame our arguments matters a great deal. Critics of the current system should be careful not to mount a high horse from which they decry Orthodox insistence on deciding for other people what being Jewish means, unless they are willing to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions and throw open the doors of Jewish identity to all manner of antisemites who claim to be "the real Jews". If these critics are willing to exclude even a single claimant to Jewish identity, for any reason, then that constitutes an endorsement of "one religious group or dogma over another," and the difference between the position of such critics and the position of the Haredim themselves is a difference of degree, not of essence.

If this is the case, it is only honest and proper to admit as much, and to acknowledge that if the torch our people have carried for these thousands of years is worth carrying further, it will require some concessions from the values of complete autonomy and individualism, some willingness to draw lines. That doesn't mean surrender to the Haredi position; the Jewish world can, and should, have real discussions and seek real compromises about where to draw those lines as a community. But in our denominations, in our synagogues, in our organizations -- and yes, in the Israeli government -- draw lines we must, or we are no community at all.

For more perspectives on the question of who is a Jew, click here to see related BJPA-archived articles. As always, this opinion is mine and not the BJPA's. And as always, I welcome all feedback, either of support or of dissent, in the comments section below.

Jewish Organizational Dissent on Israel

 You may have seen last Friday the New York Times profiled the American Council for Judaism, which was founded in 1942 in opposition to Zionism. (Call it the non-Orthodox version of Neturei Karta.) If you are interested in a study of Jewish organizations who have been sharply critical of Israel, and the responses they received from the wider organized Jewish community, try "Breaking the Taboo: Critics of Israel and the Jewish Establishment"  by Jack Wertheimer. He examines such organizations as Breira, The New Jewish Agenda, The New Israel Fund, and Americans for Peace Now. (Since the piece is from 1996, J Street is obviously not discussed.)

Elvis Costello, Art, and Boycotts

Elvis Costello is the latest in a line of celebrities to cancel his Israel concerts for political reasons. Israeli Culture Minister, Limor Livnat, not surprisingly, thinks this is a bad thing:

A singer who boycotts Israeli fans "is not worthy of performing in front of them."

Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who traveled to Israel to receive a prize from Tel Aviv University, is another dissenter:

We don't do cultural boycotts... Artists don't have armies. What they do is nuanced, by which I mean it is about human beings, not about propaganda positions.

Atwood specifically takes a stance as an artist, but economic boycotts are also a perennial issue for Jewish communities. The San Francisco Jewish community recently issued a new policy to, among other things, prevent its grantees from supporting any kind of Israel boycott movement. The JCPA report - The Battle for Divestment from Israeli Securities in Somerville, analyzes another local struggle that had wider impact on the Jewish community.

Ben Cohen's 'The Ideological Foundations of the Boycott Campaign Against Israel' offers a broad analysis of this phenomenon, and Divestment from Israel, the Liberal Churches, and Jewish Responses: A Strategic Analysis, another discrete example.