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Courtesy of Oded Antman

Courtesy of Oded Antman

Courtesy of Oded Antman

Courtesy of Oded Antman

Courtesy of Oded Antman

The Boundaries of Jewish Identity: Israel Democracy Institute Roundtable

January 16, 2017



Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky: "Absence of dialogue with Diaspora Jewry is a serious threat to the State of Israel."

Professor Michael Walzer: "The concept of Jewish nationhood must be separated from the Jewish religion, and Israel must thus be transformed into the Jewish People's nation-state."


On Thursday, December 1, IDI held a seminar on the 'Boundaries of Jewish Identity' that discussed questions related to identity, conversion and solidarity, both in Israel and the Diaspora.


The roundtable featured notable rabbis, public figures and academics from Israel and around the world, including sociologist, Professor Steven M. Cohen, Professor Michael Walzer, Author Leon Wieseltier, Professor Shira Wolosky, Rabbi David Stav, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Yaaqov Medan.


Below, are the highlights of the four convened sessions:


Panel 1: Jewish Identity and its Influence on Israeli Culture

According to playwright Joshua Sobol, "We are living through a time when people around the world are increasingly self-identifying based on nationalism, which is creating barriers between people and leading to increased intolerance of different cultures. In Israel, something called 'insular identification' exists, whereby society's 'peel' is being made thicker, at the expense of enriching its cultural content."


Professor Haviva Pedaya: "Today, Judaism is undergoing a scaling down process, similar to the European model of nationalism. It's actually secular people who are attempting to impose this singular model, which is based on a single, accepted truth."


Rabbi Yaaqov Medan: "The President of Israel recently mixed up the concepts of tribes and nations.  In Israel, there are four 'tribes' – secular, national religious, ultra-Orthodox and Jews from the Diaspora. Arabs comprise an entirely different nation." Medan added that "Jewish identity must be strengthened, based on us being the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, by virtue of the brit milah [circumcision ceremony] and the ascent onto Mount Moriah. If we only go in the direction of modern Jewish culture, I am very worried about the continuity of Jewish identity into the future."


Panel 2: Methods of Becoming a Member of the Jewish People


According to noted Jewish sociologist Professors Steven M. Cohen: "Today, there are 200,000 Jews who do not have Jewish parents. Out of these, 120,000 have not undergone conversions, but see themselves and their children as Jewish. As such, we need to welcome all these 'non-Jews'."

Cohen added that "young Jews today do not approve of certain definitions of Judaism, especially those that imply a privileged status to being Jewish. Therefore, we need to develop more ideological and societal-based definitions of belonging."


Shmuel Rosner from the Jewish People Policy Institute: "Our research finds that when you ask a Jew to define his/her Jewishness, you are likely to be asked a question in response: 'is this Jewishness meant to serve primarily as a connection to a community? Expedite the process of getting married by the Rabbinate? A way to identify with the state of Israel?' As such, there should not be only one kind of conversion, but rather a series of conversion options that are in sync with the variety of contexts in which people who identify themselves as Jewish define 'Jewishness'."


Reform Rabbi Dalia Marx: "We must develop a conversion process in Israel that makes it easier for people who grow up here, celebrate the [Jewish] holidays and serve in the army. This is a matter ofKlal Yisrael, not of justice. Is this not better than a conversion process in which people must be religiously disingenuous? Such a gateway to Judaism is offensive and harmful. Ultimately, anyone forced to live this way cannot create. With regards to Diaspora Jewry, the goal is not to marry a Jewish man or woman, but to raise Jewish children. "


Panel 3: Jewish Identity from a Personal Perspective


This session was moderated by Jeremy Sharon, Religious Affairs Reporter for the Jerusalem Post.


Rabbi David Stav: "There is a gap between the halachic and societal definitions of Judaism. According to the Law of Return, we define a Jew based on the Nuremberg Laws, not the halacha. Today, we must ask every Jew what he is willing to do on behalf of his Judaism. Judaism must be comprised of a set of values, affiliations and content, so that a person can develop an understanding of what he is willing to do for it. This sense of obligation can be acted upon by moving to Israel, donating, going to synagogue or not marrying a non-Jew. Without these definitions as to what it means to be Jewish, there's no point to Judaism and it will eventually disappear into history."


Professor Shira Wolosky: "We are not dealing with questions related to DNA, but to issues of identity: where you grew up and what you believe. Today, people around the world are not usually affiliated with just one group. Historically, Jews have always lived among non-Jews, while maintaining ties to Jewish communities. In today's globalized world, only the most fundamentalist religious sects are closed to people from outside a defined community. As such, defining 'who is a Jew?' today is just one more personal struggle, among various competing identities, in an individual's ongoing efforts to develop a concept of self."


Concluding Panel: Jewish Solidarity in an Age of Pluralism

According to Natan Sharansky, Jewish Agency Chairman: "The foundation of solidarity is based on communities' feeling that they are a part of a historical process. While Jews around the world are fighting the attempts to delegitimize Israel, we refuse to legitimize these people's ways of life. The absence of dialogue with Diaspora Jewry is a serious threat to Israel and it is the state's responsibility to engage in dialogue with all groups. It's amazing to me that we've managed to maintain a relationship with non-Orthodox Jews until now. This relationship will not continue indefinitely."


Professor Michael

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