Am I a Jew? This is a remarkably strange question for me to ask. No aspect of my identity is more obvious to me. I've been aware of being Jewish since before I can remember. We missed school on Rosh Hashanah; everyone else had Christmas trees. My grandparents' native language was Yiddish. This is besides the fact that I chose 30 years ago to move to the Jewish state.
Nonetheless, while writing "How to Prove You're a Jew" for The New York Times Magazine, I ran the personal experiment of seeing whether I could come up with evidence of Jewishness that might satisfy the Israeli rabbinate. My detective work yielded meager results. No official U.S. document lists me as a Jew. No Jewish marriage contract, or ketuba, for my parents lay hidden in an attic. No Orthodox rabbi alive knew my late mother as a child. With a cousin's help, I found what's probably a record of my grandmother's arrival at Ellis Island in 1910, with her ethnicity listed as "Hebrew" -- but her name is spelled "Sure" rather than "Sarah." Maybe that document would convince a judge in Israel's state-run rabbinic courts. Maybe not.
All of which makes me a fairly typical American-born Jew -- not too different from Suzie, the woman I wrote about in the Times, whose daughter was nearly unable to marry in Israel. In the article, I explained that marriage in Israel is entirely the province of religious authorities, which for the Jewish majority means the state-run rabbinate. Rabbinate jobs are awarded as political patronage; secular parties have satisfied religious coalition partners by giving those jobs to ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Increasingly, the rabbis in the state bureaucracy demand proof that people registering to marry are really Jewish. The proof they seek -- government documents, testimony from a select group of Orthodox clergy -- is unavailable to most American-born Jews.
Judging by how quickly the article climbed the "most e-mailed" chart it disturbed many American Jewish readers. In writing that piece, I kept to the role of narrator, telling a story. But one can't tell a story like this without seeing implications. Here are a few.
Most obvious, Israel needs to separate state and synagogue. As a matter of human rights, it is unacceptable that a couple seeking a civil marriage must go abroad. It is also absurd that to have a religious ceremony, one must be vetted by a clerical bureaucracy, then find a clergyman approved by that bureaucracy.
The point of separation is not only to protect nonbelievers but also to protect Judaism from the state. As Tulane University sociologist of religion Brenda Brasher once pointed out to me, the United States is the most religious country in the West precisely because of its unusual separation of church and state. America is a hothouse of religious innovation and variety, because religious institutions have to attract people to come through their doors. They can't depend on the state to pay their budgets. Judaism in Israel, tied to the state, alienates most Israeli Jews.
Over the years, I've talked to leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism who would like the Israeli government to subsidize their institutions as well. They are mistaken. For Israel to be a Jewish state does not mean that the government must support Judaism. Rather, it should mean that because the country has a Jewish majority, Jews enjoy more cultural autonomy than they do as a minority elsewhere -- creating space for a ferocious, delightful debate about what it means to be Jewish and what form Judaism should take. To the maximum extent possible, the state should stay out of that debate.
Which brings me to a second implication. I suspect the article upset many Jews because they would like to agree on what the word "Jew" means, on who belongs to the club. But there's no such consensus. Why should there be, really? We famously don't agree on anything else. Eliminating ultra-Orthodox control of Judaism in Israel will not lead Jews to agree on what constitutes conversion, or on whether the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is a Jew (Reform Judaism says yes; Conservative and Orthodox say no).
The ambiguities actually go further. American Jews tend to define "Jew" as a religious term but to treat it as an ethnic identity -- a tribal matter of shared ancestry, inflections, foods, and fears. Most Israeli Jews insist "Jew" is the name of a nationality, parallel to "French" or "Palestinian." Yet they generally assume that someone who converts to another religion ceases to be a Jew, and that someone who converts to Judaism has joined the ethnic group.
Because of the multiple meanings, two Jews can work together to raise money for a Jewish philanthropy, even when one is not sure the other is quite Jewish enough for his son to marry. This sociological reality could be softened by mutual respect. An Orthodox rabbi should be able to trust a Reform rabbi who says that someone's mother is Jewish. But the Reform rabbi will continue believing a Jewish father is sufficient to make someone a Jew, and her Orthodox colleague will disagree. Ultimately, the word "Jew" is postmodern, loaded with contradictory meanings. If I have made people uncomfortable by reporting this fact, there's nothing I can do about it.
Nonetheless, as a Jewish state, Israel can't entirely get out of the business of definitions. Regarding itself as the Jewish homeland, Israel grants Jews the right to immigrate. This isn't unique. Germany, Ireland, Finland, and other nation-states have laws granting preferential immigration rights to members of the dominant ethnic group. (The nation-state is an imperfect institution, but it is not going out of fashion, as Kosovars will testify.) To grant that right, you have to define who belongs to the group.
Israel could eliminate the problem by nullifying its Law of Return. Judging from the e-mails I received, very few of the American Jews who were perturbed by "How to Prove You're a Jew" would like this solution. Even if they never intend to move to Israel, they want to know they qualify.
Yet if Israel lets in anyone who says he or she is Jewish, it would lose control of immigration. It is now a developed country, attractive purely for economic reasons. There's no perfect solution to this quandary, but there may be ways to ameliorate it. Israel should use a wide definition of "Jew" for the legal purpose of defining who qualifies for immigration on that basis. It should also enact a consistent policy on how non-Jews can qualify for immigration, so that there's an alternative track. Israel is no more immune from this need than any other Western country. Instead of instant citizenship for Jews, all immigrants should go through the same process of naturalization, over the same amount of time, with the same requirements. And once people are citizens, their ethnic identity should not be the state's concern. The need to prove you are a Jew wouldn't vanish, but it would be both easier and less important.