guest opinion

Who defines a Jew?

Jewish men carry Torah scrolls as they dance during Simchat Torah celebrations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 17, 2022. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Sometimes, reading the comments section of an op-ed can prove to be much more interesting than the article itself, because it allows you to see what people are really thinking – not to mention what those thoughts reveal.

One such editorial comes to mind. Just today, I read David Horovitz’s Dec. 15 op-ed, “Don’t mess with the Law of Return.” In it, he writes, “The argument of ‘if you were Jewish enough for Hitler to want to murder you, you should be Jewish enough for Israel to give you a home, has always been a powerhouse defense.”

He goes on to say, “Israel should and does see itself as a focal point for Jews everywhere and for those who see themselves as part of the Jewish people, regardless of the particular stream of Judaism with which they identify.” 

With these words, Horovitz is, perhaps, doing the most Jewish thing of all – operating from a place of mercy, justice and generosity – knowing that today’s Jewish face has dramatically changed as a result of intermarriage, modern times and lack of interest in religion, to name a few reasons.  

But it doesn’t change the fact that unaffiliated or intermarried Jews still identify as Jews in the ethnic and cultural sense. He knows that those Jews should not be discarded as unimportant or as those who simply shouldn’t be counted among their people. 

Horovitz connects the importance, and even urgency, of their inclusion to the social climate, which he observes to be one of ever-growing anti-Jewish sentiment. Such rhetoric is no longer hidden, thanks to those with wide-reaching platforms, such as entertainers, sports figures and other well-known personalities. 

Among them, Horovitz cites Kanye West, Dave Chappelle and Nick Fuentes, noting that they are “not investigating the halachic [‘legal’] credentials of any particular Jews they have in their sights.” 

But one comment to his op-ed stated that “the article has been based on pure emotion rather than reason.” It goes on to say that “there is absolutely no reason for us to use a madman like Hitler to define who is a Jew.” 

In fact, almost all those who took the time to write comments disagreed with Horovitz’s position of wanting to keep the Jewish homeland an available option for those who might suddenly need to escape the same fate that befell 6 million just 80 years ago.  

Although there were a few supportive comments, emphasis on the words “a few,” only one comment recognized that Jews comprise a religion and a nation or race. The writer pragmatically takes the position that defining a Jew is not something to trifle with, if, in fact, that person claiming Jewish roots truly does have them. 

What is surprising and disturbing is that so many Jews are willing to write off those they have determined are not worthy to define themselves as Jews, since they have “not put in the work” that they believe is obligatory to identify as part of the same tribe. 

There is something terribly wrong with that way of thinking, because it connects being a Jew with somehow having earned it, regardless of one’s bloodline. 

And what of those who have “put in the time?” Does being observant, affiliated or active in the Jewish community earn one a higher place of identification? Does it afford anyone a purer heart or a more righteous lifestyle? In short, is being a religious Jew the ultimate hallmark of being a good Jew?  

That is a question which can be answered easily by those who keep up with the myriad of almost daily newspaper accounts of very observant Jews, who have been convicted of such crimes as rape, extortion, child abuse, money laundering, fraud and much more.  

Why would those people automatically have the privilege of being defined as a Jew in good standing? 

It goes without saying that the outward appearance of dress, habitual presence at synagogues, or other trappings, which appear more authentic or ritualistic, are the defining points upon which today’s proponents of changing the Law of Return rely.

But does anyone really have the right, legally or morally, to define who is a Jew when speaking about those born to Jewish parents or grandparents? Does that identity need to be earned? Because that’s pretty much the argument in all of this. 

You’re eligible to consider yourself Jewish only if you have done enough to satisfy those who falsely claim that being born Jewish is not enough. To them, how one conducts their life, as it relates to their personal choices and preferences, can actually cancel out one’s birthright. In other words, Jewish identity is not predicated on blood but, rather, on actions.

It comes down to conforming with one interpretation, expression and viewpoint of what is deemed to be the correct and prevailing “religious position” of the Jewish race. Accept it, and you’re in. Reject it, and you’re out. If you think about it, it all comes down to coercion. 

In order to get all the perks and benefits, you must sign on the Orthodox dotted line, no matter whether it’s your own personal conviction, because to not do so is to run the risk of losing your very ethnic identity.

The survival of a multitude of diaspora Jews cannot and must not hang on coercion to adopt a belief which they may not want, for a variety of reasons. 

Let’s not forget that coercion was employed against Jews by those who told them that their lives were safe only if they would agree to convert.  That is where the Yom Kippur ceremony of Kol Nidre comes in, the renunciation of all previous vows which were made under coercion. 

After all, aren’t our choices, relating to matters of faith, a personal issue between us and God? And wasn’t it He who defined Jews at the moment of conception by virtue of their lineage? It is no one’s right to un-define what God, Himself, has defined. Nor is it anyone’s job to add conditions to being able to remain part and parcel of the nation.

Those who think otherwise would do well to take a refresher course in what it really means to be a Jew: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Sage advice, lest someone think that overriding the birthright given by God to those whom He chose to have it is within their purview to do.

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 do not necessarily reflect the views of our management or 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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