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Once a Jew, always a Jew!

Illustrative image - a man and boy praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City

When you think about it, it’s truly amazing what Israel has been able to accomplish in her mere 74 years of existence: It is a country rich with technological and medical advancements, agricultural know-how and an impressive war machine. 

Some of the greatest philosophers, as well as religious and political thinkers, of our time, have helped to frame the country, the only homeland of the Jewish people; but with all that robust and brilliant intellect, there is one thing that Israel’s leadership just doesn’t seem to get.

It is the question of “Who is a Jew?” For some reason, the biblical bloodline, passed on by the father, was changed to that of the mother – regardless of whether or not the father was known and happened to be Jewish. So, today, the universally accepted definition of a Jew, according to the nation of Israel, is solely dependent upon being born to a Jewish mother.  

To the Jewish state, another defining parameter is not having embraced a religion which is different from what is described as the Jewish faith, which, today, constitutes three main branches – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.  This is how it’s been, and this is how it remains.  

While many have challenged these definitions as being incomplete, whether in light of paternal Jewish parentage or in designating the belief that faith and ethnicity are one and the same as erroneous, the legal definition of “Who is a Jew?” still stands on a false and incomplete premise.

In the Jerusalem Post article “Inauthenticity from every side,” Troy Fritzhand makes the following cogent argument: 

“The collective tradition of the Jewish people, commonly referred to as Judaism, is not actually a religion. As opposed to religions such as Christianity or Buddhism, you cannot just become a Jew. 

“This is best illustrated in the following example:  A person born into a Christian or Buddhist family that decides to reject either Christ as their savior or Buddha’s teaching as their spiritual guide is no longer a Christian or Buddhist. They can either decide to become an atheist or take on another religion that they believe in. 

“For Jews?  If someone is born into a Jewish family, it does not matter if they completely reject the tradition and lack belief in God, they will still be Jewish.  That’s why there are atheists and there are Jewish atheists – once you are a Jew, you’re always a Jew.”

Fritzhand goes on to ask the question, “So what is Judaism?” and answers his own question, defining it as an “ethnic peoplehood encompassing a common tradition rooted in the Torah and the Land of Israel … passed down from generation to generation for over 3,000 years.” 

Fritzhand makes the case that today’s three branches of Judaism did not exist in the 1800s but are a more modern-day creation which “lacks any real meaning.” In fact, he claims these branches are inauthentic to the Jewish tradition.

Finally, someone gets the difference between religion and ethnicity – which can definitely be mutually exclusive. Actually, the truth is that each person decides to which faith they want to belong, but that act has nothing to do with their ethnicity. They remain the ethnicity into which they were born.  

Italians remain Italian, the Irish remain Irish and the French remain French.  Likewise, the Jewish people remain Jewish, irrespective of faith; because being Jewish is, first and foremost, being a member of an ethnicity. 

While this detail may not seem very important to some, it is a crucial detail which permits or prevents a Jewish person from being seen as authentically Jewish, according to the Law of Return of 1950. It’s especially important at a time when non-observant, assimilated Jews, throughout the world, might, for the first time, be considering Israel as a better alternative to their present home.

Their right to claim a heritage and ethnicity, which they never abandoned, could be denied by those who view them according to a very faulty definition linking the peoplehood with the religion. But, once a Jew, always a Jew! No one can erase an ethnicity simply because a person does not follow the majority religion of that group. Such a claim is absurd.  

By that thinking, is a person who lives in East Timor, a country which embraces Roman Catholicism at a whopping 97%, ineligible to call themselves of Malayo-Polynesian descent – the majority ethnic group in that region?

Why has the only Jewish state, which is committed to protecting the Jewish people worldwide, embraced a wrong and incomplete definition of who is a Jew? Why, if it inadvertently made that mistake, would it continue to perpetuate it at a time when Jews are in danger in many places throughout the world, by virtue of their ethnicity? Does anyone think that makes sense?

Not only does it not make sense, it is a terribly narrow vision which has perilous consequences for Jews who have rejected the Jewish religion of today and have come to believe that the tenets of another faith are more in keeping with their views. It’s also possible that they do live within the framework of the Jewish religion but without the trappings of certain constraints that are simply man-made, imposed rules which have no basis in the Scriptures but are modern-day add-ons.

At a time when there has been much talk about changing Israel’s Law of Return to exclude the grandchildren of Jews from being eligible for citizenship, Israel, as a nation which purports to care for Jews of every stripe, should do some soul-searching to see if that claim is really true. Because, while they weren’t looking, Jews in the diaspora, have chosen many different lifestyles, faiths and viewpoints – all of which are their prerogative, but which, nonetheless, have not erased their heritage and ethnicity.

“Once a Jew, always a Jew” must be the ethos of the only Jewish homeland in the world, because anything less is to reject Jews who were born Jews but who do not pass the erroneous acid test that authenticates one as being a member of their own tribe.  

No one should be denied entrance into their rightful tribal home for not conforming to a false acid test!

ALL ISRAEL NEWS is committed to fair and balanced coverage and analysis, and honored to publish a wide-range of opinions. That said, views expressed by guest columnists may not necessarily reflect the views of our staff.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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