Religion: Who Is a Jew?

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Though Israel has been governed by a delicate alliance of secular and Orthodox Jews since its birth as a nation, Jewish religious law—Halakha—enjoys a remarkable prominence in the everyday life of the country. Last week the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a close decision that threatens the status of Halakha and could create a rupture in the ruling coalition. At issue: whether the state may decide who is and who is not a Jew.

The decision came in the long-pending case of Lieut. Commander Benjamin Shalit, 34, a psychologist in the Israeli navy (TIME, Nov. 29, 1968). Shalit, a native-born Israeli, has been trying for years to register his children (a son, now six, and a daughter, three) as Jews by nationality, if not by religion. The Israeli Interior Ministry, charged with registering births, refused to so do, arguing that Shalit's children do not meet the test of Halakha, which stipulates that a Jew, to be formally considered such, must have either been born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism. Shalit's wife Anne, a Scottish gentile, has not converted, nor have the children. The Shalits are both atheists.

Last week, after nearly two years of deliberation, Israel's Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Shalit. The court did not resolve the substantive issue —an ancient one—of whether Jewishness is a matter of religion, nationality or culture. Instead, it based its ruling on a technicality: whether the government can use the test of Halakha to define nationality. The answer was no.

For Shalit, the decision means that the Interior Ministry will have to register his children as either "Jews" or "Hebrews." For Israel, however, the decision opens up a potentially grave internal squabble. The orthodox National Religious Party is determined to seek a law redressing the Supreme Court decision. One suggested solution would simply define a Jew according to Halakha. (No such law now exists.) Another might be to by-pass the question entirely by dropping the nationality and religious section from the registration rolls. Should Golda Meir's government fail to press for such action, the Religious Party will likely resign from the coalition—a prospect that prompted Religious Affairs Minister Dr. Zerah Warhaftig to note drily that "the court's decision certainly does not contribute to unity."