An uncomfortable question resurfaced in the government clash with the rabbinical courts: who is a Jew? Israel was never a secular state; rabbis had established the criterion of citizenship. Now liberal atheist state refuses to part with the traditional – religious – definition of a Jew and resorts to bizarre option of reforming rabbinical courts. Other liberal democracies secularized; Israeli state usurps control over the religion.

Israel ran into a bind of Jewish – atheist – ethnically blind state. The only alternative to religious definition of Jewishness is bloodline. Such genetic definition raises doubts about many Jews whose ancestral lines cannot be traced, and bans newcomers. The bloodline criterion is inconsistent with historically accepted definition of Jewishness through religion and permanently relegates non-Jewish citizens of Israel to inferior status in the Jewish state. Religious conversion is the only way to equalize non-Jewish citizens in Jewish state. Israeli government has to retain the religious definition of Jewishness to remain both Jewish and remotely democratic. But the core issue of defining the proper citizens is too sweet for the totalitarian machine to leave it to the religious establishment.

Religious conversion doesn’t solve the inherent incompatibility of Jewish state with ethnic-blind democracy. Even offered the most liberal conversion procedure, Arabs won’t switch to Judaism. Faced with increasing presence of Arabs and other non-Jews, Israeli government will abandon the notion of Jewish state and switch instead to Israeli nationalism. Israeli nation will include Arabs, Slavs, and Blacks, Muslims and Christians. Jewish state will be salvaged for ethnic-blind democracy.

The government would likely draw the line between the religious Jews and other Israelis, thus lumping non-observant Jews together with Arabs and others. Atheist Israeli Jews will be thus stripped of their Jewish identity; assimilation will speed up.
The rabbinical conversion is obnoxious and in many points outright silly. Given the large number of atheist Jews, it makes sense to accept the conversion of sympathetic Gentiles who are already in Israel. Alienating them and their half-Jewish children is impractical. Rabbis are correct, though, to erect a barrier to be overcome by proselytes. Faced with hundreds of millions of hostile Muslims nearby and hostility from much of the Christian world, the new Jews must not falter. The barrier of conversion, while high, need not be offensive. Instead of learning to tear the toilet paper in advance of the Shabbat, proselytes could prove their loyalty to the Jewish nation in more relevant ways, such as settling in frontier towns of Israel – which many do, anyway.

The would-be proselytes often blame the rabbinical courts for forcing them to become “religious rather than Jewish.” But we know no other way to Jewishness rather than through religion. An alternative would have been a course in Jewish history and cooking, an evidently untenable proposal. The conversion aspirants also complain that at the end of the study, their conversion is not assured. Though the rabbinical courts indeed cheated many aspirants who otherwise knew Judaism reasonably, the conversion process’ positive result could never be assured. There is hardly a danger of mass fake conversions in Israel; the Gentiles already here have little reason to join the Jewish nation other than out of pure intentions. On the background of scores of atheist and leftist Jews, most converts know a lot about Judaism.

The rabbis correctly refuse to recognize Jewishness of many Slavs who apply for conversion but retain Russian culture and mentality. Closing down Russian-language media in Israel would go a long way toward more numerous and efficient conversions.

Judaism is not rabbis business