There have always been two sides to the “Who is a Jew?” question. There are those who identify Jews primarily through blood and genetics, and those who see being a Jew as being more about choosing to identify with the Jewish people and adopt a certain lifestyle.
With an intermarriage rate hovering around 50 percent, Diaspora Jewry has for the most part adopted choice and lifestyle as their determining criteria for who is a Jew. On the other hand, the Israeli chief rabbinate continues to privilege blood and genetics, rejecting Reform, Conservative, and even many Orthodox conversions.
This past week, the chief rabbinate’s blood-and-genetics position was put on display.
After years of political negotiations, historical research, and genetic testing, Israel welcomed the Bnei Menashe. The Indian group, which claims to be descended from one of the 10 lost tribes, was allowed entry into the country under the Law of Return. At the same time, however, that the chief rabbinate was opening it arms, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar proposed denying the Law of Return to anyone not born of a Jewish mother. Only Jews born Jewish would be eligible for automatic citizenship; all others would have to apply through the regular channels.
Many in Israel laughed at the whole Bnei Menashe episode. One commentator in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz described the story of these long-lost Jews as comparable to fables such as “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, or…Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs.”
But these commentators’ criticisms are misplaced. Their issue should not be the absurdity of the Bnei Menashe story, but rather with a system that continues to privilege a form of identity that Jews worldwide are increasing moving away from. While the chief rabbinate continues to stress blood, Diaspora Jews are increasingly seeing Judaism as being about a way of life (and not about one’s DNA).