NEW YORK – Jewish leaders from all over the world suggest that given cultural and demographic developments in Jewish world, Israel may want to make changes to the Law of Return, a new report by the Jewish People Policy Institute reveals.
The study, entitled “Exploring the Jewish Spectrum in a time of Fluid Identity,” surveyed leaders of Jewish organizations and communities who engaged in dialogues in 49 seminars worldwide on issues that are at the core of the collective interests of the Jewish people globally. It provides recommended steps for action in the Jewish world, which can serve as points of departure for leadership deliberation.
Although the report’s findings show a consensus in the Jewish community regarding the essence and desirability of the law, it debates the question of who should be included under its umbrella.
Participants looked at the current definitions of who is considered Jewish under the regulation and then discussed their current validity for Jewish world today, which has changed considerably since the law was last updated in the early 1970s. Many believe the eligibility criteria for the law could be extended to include more people.
“This recommendation does not mean that Israel needs to rush into debates about possible modification of the Law of Return,” JPPI senior fellow Shmuel Rosner said.
“However, as the meaning of Jewishness changes, and as the boundaries of the Jewish people are being redrawn by Jews and non-Jews all over the world, it may be necessary to modify the law, and if such need arises as a result of growing demand for immigration or growing pressures within Israel against the current criteria, it is worth noting that world Jewry would not necessarily be against it.”
In the same discussion, respondents also debated “levels” of Jewishness programs like Birthright should require when admitting participants.
Overall, the JPPI report shows a consensus among Jewish leaders that the community should be more welcoming and inclusive for all those who seek to participate in Jewish life.
According to the report, respondents believe there is a need to strengthen the sense of Jewish peoplehood among mixed families, partial Jews and non-Jews who are affiliated with Judaism.
When asked about the primary component of Jewishness (genealogy, religion, peoplehood and culture) on a scale of 1 to 4, respondents rated culture at 3.17 and religion at only 2.97.
“Whereas Jewish identity was previously defined by ancestry and biology – there are now growing segments of those who actively participate in Jewish life who are self-identified Jews, intermarried, or partial Jews,” the report said. “The past decades, [the actions of] most major Jewish organizations have asserted that the Jewish community – synagogues, community centers, Hillel, camps, etc. – should welcome all who want to participate in Jewish life.”
With the need to be more inclusive, however, the Jewish leaders also recognize the necessity of maintaining selective communal norms for practical or symbolic reasons.
These norms, respondents believe, are needed to maintain the Jewish people as a collective, and prevent it from disintegrating into a fragmented collection of groups and individuals.
When it comes to the authority of the rabbinate, an issue much discussed within the community in the past year, most Jews surveyed do not believe rabbis should decide who is a Jew.
“Self-definition and community were by far the front-running choices as who should decide on an individual’s Jewishness among survey participants,” the report said.
“Less than one-quarter of participants believe rabbis should have such power and only a small fraction believe that Israel should have any decision- making power regarding this issue.”
“The Jewish people are undergoing a period of radical change in its internal dynamics: generational transitions; the promise of some normalization of Israel’s situation in the Middle East; a shift in Jewish identification and sense of community.” JPPI president Avinoam Bar-Yosef, said. “The external environment of the Jewish people is changing radically as well: globalization; geostrategic shifts; value transformations; scientific and technological innovations; new manifestations of anti-Semitism.”
These challenges, he said, pose serious risks of decline for the community, which is why many feel the need to strengthen the sense of Jewish peoplehood among all members of the community, even those that are not Jewish but are intimately involved with the Jewish community for various reasons.
“This is especially important for Jews who do not instinctively feel that kind of connection, including some Jews by choice, distant Jews, mixed families, partial Jews, and non-Jews who affiliate with Judaism,” Bar-Yosef added. “This is in light of the growing complexity in defining Jewishness as a result of fragmentation, secularization and integration among Jews worldwide.”
The JPPI report calls on Jewish leadership to consider ways of acknowledging those who have “cast their lot with the Jewish people in terms of behavior and self-identity,” Bar-Yosef said.