"Hillel Halkin: The citizenship test: Making those who are not Jewish "one of us


By: Hillel Halkin

הלל הלקין

If it were possible, wouldn’t it be great to go back to the world of Naomi and Ruth the Moabite? “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Doesn’t anyone who says “your people will be my people” – with or without the God – deserve to be taken in? And shouldn’t we respect the desires of anyone who says “your people is not my people?” If someone comes from Russia or Sudan or even from Umm al-Fahm and asks to share his fate with that of the Jewish people – we should say “welcome.” And if Messrs Cohen and Levy reside in Los Angeles and declare they have no connection to us – we should reply “good riddance.” What could be more natural and more logical than that?

And in paradise, that is how every secular Zionist would demand that we behave. Explicitly or implicitly, secular Zionism sought from the outset to redefine Judaism: no longer a minority religion defined by Jewish law (halakha) and its authority, rabbis, but a majority nationality in our own country, characterized like any other people, by language and the land under our feet. Anyone who spoke the language and walked the land – that would be his people. Early secular Zionism did not dream of Land-of-Israel nationalism detached from the Jewish religion, but was rooted in the Jewish religion yet independent of it. The anti-Jewish, “Canaanite” ideology, although it had been prophesized, was a later development rooted in the internal contradictions of the beautiful but naïve dream.

But our world, sadly, is not paradise – and not just our JewishIsraeli world, but also the world of humankind. Once, a person could wander the world as he pleased, settle wherever he wished, and become a local, becoming French, Spanish or Italian, without any permits and signatures. But the modern state positioned border guards, issued population registries, passports and visas, and finally, after the shake-up of World War I, it also legislated immigration laws that limited naturalization. Until 1914, for instance, anyone who wanted to be an American and didn’t suffer from a debilitating illness, could just buy a ticket to the United States. But starting in the 1920’s,  that option was gradually reduced.

Nonetheless, it is clear to all of us that the question “Who is a Jew?” in the State of Israel is different from “Who is an American?” in the United States and “Who is French?” in France. The reason is clear: in the US, France and other enlightened countries, an immigration visa – although hard to come by – is not dependent on the applicant’s religion, and the religious background of veteran citizens or of those seeking naturalization has no legal standing: a Catholic is like a Protestant and both are like a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist and those who have no religion. Among all the world’s democratic nations, only Israel, being a “Jewish state,” discriminates among immigrants and among citizens based on religion. The historic root of this situation is that the revolution that secular Zionism sought to implement got stuck half way. Zionism succeeded in creating a Jewish state but did not redefine the people that inhabited it. The historical result is a much more problematic reality, making democratic life in Israel difficult, causing discomfort to every Israeli who espouses liberal values and slandering Israel in the world as a “racist” state – an exaggerated accusation, but one that holds some truth.

How do we untangle this historic knot? Obviously there are no simple solutions. Our people’s special history that created the problem will apparently need several generations to resolve it completely. In the meantime, here is one humble idea.

Many Western nations have citizenship tests – either written or oral exams in which the potential citizen must exhibit basic knowledge of the language, laws and norms of their new country as a condition for their naturalization. Israel has no such exam but Judaism does: it’s called the conversion process and it requires exhibiting basic knowledge of the Jewish language, ceremonies and faith. Today, of course, that process is difficult and cumbersome: it includes the promise to conduct a religious lifestyle and sometimes even rabbinic oversight, and not many are willing to undergo it. However, it was not always so. There were periods in which the rabbis eased the conversion process; besides the required knowledge, they made do with a declaration of fidelity not unlike that of Ruth.

Is it possible to envision a hospitable conversion process that does not require the convert to promise to uphold practical commandments, and could serve as part of the “citizenship test” for the State of Israel? Can we imagine that wise use of this test would unite large portions of the secular and religious public behind a way to join the Jewish people, a way that is both difficult enough to deter those who are not serious and but simple enough to encourage those who are? Is it possible to imagine the day when that Russian, Sudanese or even Israeli Arab could become one of us through such a citizenship test without hurting his feelings or self-respect? That wouldn’t solve the entire “Who is a Jew?” problem, but part of it.

Why not let those who wish to say “your people is my people” do so today as well?

Hillel Halkin is the author of “Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist ’ s Polemic”.