“I am a Jew.” When I was a child I often said that, yet I did not know what it meant. I did know that both my parents could also say, “I am a Jew.” As I grew, I developed a feeling of great pride in my Jewish identity. Israel, I was told, played a central role in my Jewish identity. Yet it was only much later that I came to understand why. Even though there is so much that divides Jews today, Israel can be a unifying force and a symbol of something greater than just a collection of people. It could be, as the national song says, “The Hope.”
My father taught me to “make the world a little better than you found it.” For that reason, I have volunteered my time and worked in some part of the Jewish world for over 20 years. My involvement grew, when in 2004 I became the Managing Director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Interestingly, my interaction with the Jewish community and my engagement with Jewish foundations and organizations revealed the problematic use of the term “Jewish peoplehood,” or “klal yisrael.” I often despair and wonder if those words have lost their meaning. Is “Jewish peoplehood” a mere fantasy rather than a reality? The Rotem conversion legislation, that recently caused such an uproar, revealed an ongoing and ugly battle. We have narrowly averted a schism.
As a Jew, I was outraged by the proposed legislation. The State of Israel has no business in affiliating with or endorsing one religious group or dogma over another. When it does so it becomes complicit in the internecine strife that plagues our Jewish discourse and abdicates the responsibility it assumed at the time of its creation. That creation was meant to guarantee existential survival for all Jews, regardless of affiliation, style of worship, or geographic location. Regarding Jewish status, it is the government’s sole responsibility to secure and guard that guarantee.
Outside Israel the ability to designate “Jewish status” does not rest with the state or with any governmental agency. Would that it could be so in Israel! Instead, the Israeli government empowers one religious faction to the detriment of all others. Leader after leader do so in the shameless quest to solidify power. With the decision to work on the Rotem legislation for six months, PM Netanyahu has a chance to enact an historic change for all Jews. Now is the time to assess the government’s role concerning religion. It is high time for the government to get out of the business of legislating religious preference. Mr. Netanyahu must lead us to a decisive conclusion: ALL Jews enjoy equal status in the eyes of the Israeli government. Anything less is failure.
As we anxiously await the outcome of the coming process, American Jews continue to affirm that we all have a special relationship with Israel. American Jews tirelessly and generously support and advocate for the state of Israel. We remind our elected officials of the importance of the “special relationship” the United States government and Israel’s enjoy. Let us not miss this newfound opportunity to stand as one people drawn closer and reaffirmed. Let us all say, "I am a Jew."