For blossoming Israel it represents an ironic if serious dilemma: The very people credited with having retained their identity for some four thousand years—including two millenniums of world-wide dispersion—now seem woefully divided on the question: who is a Jew?

World Of Judaism

The majority of Israelis feel that it is enough if, in good faith, one says that he is a Jew. Orthodox rabbis feel this is not enough. Onlooking Christians, in turn, recall the words of Jesus of Nazareth to Jews of his day, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did”; and Paul’s words to the Romans, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal.”

“Who is a Jew?” The question never much bothered Israel for the first decade of its new existence as an independent republic. Only once had the matter come up, in 1955 when an opposition member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) cried out bluntly, “Who is a Jew?” The speaker of the house quickly dismissed the question, “We all know who is a Jew,” he said, “there is no point to this question.”

By 1958 the Knesset was not so sure. Immigrants streamed in from Poland, where war and oppression had encouraged intermarriage. According to traditional Judaism, children of mixed marriages take the nationality of the mother. But what was to be said for children of Jewish men who had taken non-Jewish wives? The majority feeling was that if both parents consent to consider the child Jewish, the race should be thus recognized. But Orthodox rabbis who, in Israel, hold influence in such personal matters, protested.

The dispute came into full focus ...

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