Today, Israeli politics - at least in terms of its relationship with the Palestinians - is focused on having them recognize Israel's Jewish character. There are also calls for Israel's non-Jewish citizens to take an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state. Foreign workers are even being portrayed as endangering Israel's Jewishness. So the issue of what the concept of "Jewish" actually refers to is not unimportant.
Let me demonstrate this with an example: One of my doctoral students recently completed research on the Igbo people of Nigeria, many of whom consider themselves Jews, as well as on the futile attempt of a few of their representatives to be recognized as Jews by the Israeli rabbinate - which would make them eligible for aliyah. His study shows that it is ultimately impossible to rationally explain why the Igbos have not been recognized when, in the course of the 20th century, the Ethiopian tribes called Beta Israel received complete recognition of Jewish descent (from one of the Ten Tribes ), and collective resettlement in Israel, beginning in the 1980s.
Actually, the study shows, British rabbis were already aware in the 1840s that there might be descendants of the Ten Tribes in the Niger delta. That was even before the process of the Jewish acceptance of Beta Israel began. Evidently, though, the Igbos, who today number 20-30 million people, would be political and demographic dynamite. Given the sheer number of potential Jews in Nigeria, it is no accident that Israeli authorities are hesitant to act, even as non-Orthodox rabbis from the United States are undertaking full-scale missionary tours among the Igbo.
Given this research, along with the fact that some of the African foreign workers in Israel are Nigerian Igbos who identify strongly with Judaism and with the State of Israel, it seems cynical to confront them not only with a formal denial of their Jewishness, but even with the charge that their presence here is helping to destroy Israel's Jewish character
The steadily growing intensity of concern over both the character of the Jewish state and over the definition of who is Jewish demonstrates how the definition of Jewish affiliation is increasingly escaping the control of those authorities that declare themselves responsible for it. It is now completely unclear which Israeli rabbis recognize which conversions. This is symptomatic of how, in both ethnic and religious contexts, the concept of Jewishness is beginning to break down and to be deconstructed.
Will we be able to solve the problem? The first step toward doing so involves acknowledging the very idea that troubles the Jewish community, obviously in Israel, but probably no less in the Diaspora: admitting that today, at least in Israel, the designation "Jew" is primarily, or even exclusively, political in meaning, and that it should be treated accordingly. For, if being a Jew means having the right to obtain a certain passport and settle in a specific land, both of which would otherwise be out of reach, being accepted as a Jew becomes primarily a political matter.
That may sound shocking at first. But politics is a matter of weighing contradictions and opportunities. It involves the attempt to do justice to as many interest groups as possible. Of course, it is also a matter of consciously accepting that some groups will consider the solutions problematic. Since its policies on which conversions will qualify a candidate for Israeli citizenship are in fact political, the state, as a political entity, should make clear that it is making political decisions and that it is giving a political task to the Rabbinate as both a religious and a governmental institution. Explaining its decisions in any other way actually obscures issues rather than clarifying them, and in the long run, they would lead to serious problems with the legitimacy of a "Jewish state" and undermine contemporary Judaism even more than the serious internal tensions already threatening to tear Judaism apart. Such a move by the Israeli government would doubtlessly constitute a paradigm change.
Terminologically, this could be expressed in a distinction between a "denominational Judaism" and a "Judaism relevant to the state." This distinction could be autonomously defined by political bodies. Of course, those bodies are themselves partly dependent on religious parties and powers - nevertheless, the discourse would remain a formal political discourse, and people (for example, Russian immigrants without Jewish mothers and without controversial conversions ) could also be seen as Jews in the state's sense without having to be denominational Jews. This might open the door, for example, to the burial in Jewish cemeteries of fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers with non-Jewish mothers.
As for such peoples as the Igbos, as denominational Jews, they could undergo conversions from the rabbinical side (giyur lehumra ) without necessarily receiving any civil rights. This could uncramp and facilitate the acceptance of people's claim to Jewishness. If need be, denominational Jews could be granted simplified residency and work permits, but not an immediate claim to citizenship.
These ideas are a first, still quite rudimentary formulation of a procedure that could bring more honesty and sustainability into a contemporary world where the concept of the "nation" no longer seems capable of properly delineating the frames of affiliation with Judaism. It will still take a great deal of thinking to test whether and how such a practice could be realized. My aim here is to describe it as a conceivable way out of an increasingly unsustainable muddle.
Alfred Bodenheimer is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Basel.