Who Is a Jew? Two Very Different New Answers

To the perennial question, the past month has produced interesting and potentially contradictory answers.

The July 8 issue of Nature has a paper called “The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people.” In it, far-flung scientists in Israel, Spain, Portugal, Russia and elsewhere report on the first systematic genetic analysis of the various, even farther-flung Jewish populations to be based on whole-genome studies. It largely confirms previous findings, which have shown that almost all Jewish populations have a lot of Middle Eastern genes, although the Jews of Ethiopia and India are closer to their host populations.

But there is a lot of news here. First, the Middle Eastern population that the Jews of the world most resemble is that of the Druze in Israel. Second, the Ashkenazi Jews are actually very like the Jews from around the Mediterranean, while those of the Middle East and the Caucasus seem to form a second cluster, and the Yemenite Jews a third, somewhat closer to the Bedouin. But all of these are close to each other and the Druze.

All Jews have mixed genetically with surrounding non-Jewish people, but the Ethiopian Jews (Beta Israel) and Indian Jews (Bene Israel) are more like their host populations, although Y-chromosome studies show that the Bene Israel have a Middle Eastern connection on the paternal side.

What does all this tell us? Well, the Jews of the world overwhelmingly did originate where they say they did. Also, they were not shy about bringing in significant doses of non-Jewish genes over the centuries, although most Jewish groups did less of this, more often mating among themselves. The Ethiopian and Indian exceptions imported more genes.

All these groups have of course been officially designated as Jewish by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate. Which is why the other new definition of who is a Jew is a bit strange. Also, it has the American diaspora practically up in arms.

A new law before the Knesset, already passed out of committee for parliamentary debate, will place all conversions, and therefore countless future marriages, in the hands of a tiny group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis. They will be empowered to and almost certainly will challenge the validity of not only non-Orthodox but also modern Orthodox conversions, outside of as well as inside Israel.

Large numbers of Jews converted in the United States will no longer be considered Jewish and therefore not allowed immigrate under the Law of Return or, if they have already done that, to marry in Israel, even if they have served in the army, lived in Israel many years, etc. Equally subject to question will be anyone whose mother’s conversion can be similarly challenged, or whose mother’s mother’s…

Don’t laugh. Couples trying to marry in Israel recently have had their Jewishness checked and challenged going back three generations. It’s a good thing these rules weren’t in place for the last two millennia. We’d have a worldwide Jewish population more like thirteen thousand than thirteen million.

Alana Newhouse, editor of the online Jewish magazine Tablet, wrote in The New York Times, “The redemptive history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust has rested on the twin pillars of a strong Israel and a strong diaspora…Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities…”

The Jerusalem Post, in an editorial, said the Diaspora’s should react “with dismay” and noted, “Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky called it ‘betrayal.’ The executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, referred to it as ‘destructive.’ Reform Movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie said it was ‘astonishing, foolish, disruptive.’”

The JPost editorial goes on: “In recent years, discussion among Jewish leaders and thinkers both in Israel and in the Diaspora has gradually moved away from narrow definitions of Judaism based on religious and ethnic criteria toward a broader more inclusive concept known as ‘peoplehood.’ First coined by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, peoplehood is ‘the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people.’”

Of course, this is the one definition that is consistent with the genetic and historical evidence—not to mention common sense.

I don’t mean to say that all who simply declare themselves to be Jewish should get the label; that would invite abuse of the Law of Return and dilute the Jewish people with many who don’t really want to belong to it. But surely it is not just a small band of a certain brand of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who have the sole right to judge the sincerity and determination of potential converts.

Consult the genes and read therein the more sensible definitions we have had in the past. Insistence on this new law will only fragment and weaken the Jewish people at a moment when new threats, new jeopardy, require the utmost unity.


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