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David Ben-Gurion Asks 51 Jewish Scholars: ‘Who Is a Jew?’

On the 45th anniversary of the Israeli statesman’s death, the confounding national problem of identity

Shalom Goldman
November 30, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Sixty years ago, in 1958, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s prime minister and founding father, sent a letter to fifty-one leading Jewish intellectuals. In the brief letter, he asked for their opinions on the definition of Jewish identity. While the question “Who is a Jew?” had occupied Israel’s politicians, religious authorities, and general public in one form or another since the nation’s founding, Ben-Gurion’s request was neither general nor theoretical. He pointedly asked his correspondents “how to register the ‘religion’ and ‘nationhood’ of the children of mixed marriages when the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish and has not converted, but both parents agree to have the child registered as a Jew.” In the ten years that he had led the Israeli government, Ben-Gurion had not presented a group of scholars with a direct question of such consequence, and the responses he received, although written more than a half century ago, are still relevant today.

A parliamentary crisis had precipitated Ben-Gurion’s unusual letter. Israeli identity documents of the time recorded both one’s religion and one’s nationality. In early 1958, the Minister of Interior, Israel ben Yehuda of the secularist Ahdut Haavodah party, decided that regardless of any other factors, children immigrating to Israel whose parents declared them Jewish would be registered as such by the authorities. Declaration of intent would be the only criterion in determining a child’s religion. This automatic recognition of Jewish status would make the child immediately eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

The National Religious Party, or Mafdal, quickly objected. As Orthodox Jews, they recognized as Jewish only the child of a Jewish mother, or a convert to Judaism. In their view the child of a non-Jewish mother should have to apply for “naturalization” and become an Israeli citizen at a later time. A junior partner in the Israeli coalition government, the National Religious Party threatened to withdraw from the coalition because of their disagreement with this policy and thus bring down the government. Thus, the political urgency of Ben-Gurion’s letter.

Ben-Gurion’s intense interest in the question of “Who is a Jew?” also had a deep personal aspect. In 1946 his son Amos Ben-Gurion, then serving in the British Army in Europe, married Mary Callow, a young Christian woman from the Isle of Man. Amos Ben-Gurion was wounded in battle; Mary Callow was his nurse in the British Army hospital in which he spent several months recovering. Before the wedding, Amos had consulted with his parents. His mother, Paula, objected to her son’s marriage to a non-Jew and asked her husband to “talk Amos out of it.” But after meeting Mary Callow, Ben-Gurion refused to pressure his son. Rather, he arranged for Mary to convert to Judaism in a relatively short time. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, an American Reform rabbi, then visiting London, supervised the conversion, and the marriage went ahead as planned. According to Rabbi Prinz’s account of his London meeting with Ben-Gurion: “He began his conversation with me by showing me 10 cables that had arrived from Paula every day in which she said quite plainly that Amos should not dare come to Palestine with a non-Jewish wife unless she had converted to Judaism.”

The irony of this family drama was that Paula Ben-Gurion, an American Jewish woman who adapted to Israeli culture with considerable difficulty, was very clear about her opposition to the imposition of rabbinic law in Israel. Asked by a visiting American journalist if she kept a kosher home, Paula said, “I buy kosher food in the market, but make it treyf at home.” But despite her distain for the dietary laws, she wanted her son Amos to abide by the taboo against marriage to “goyim.” Rabbi Prinz’s conversion enabled Amos Ben-Gurion and Mary Callow to have a Jewish wedding in England, but by bypassing the Israeli rabbinic authorities, Ben-Gurion deepened the antipathy of the Orthodox Jewish establishment toward his political leadership.


The larger context of Ben-Gurion’s letter was the Israeli Law of Return, promulgated in 1950. Written in the wake of the Holocaust, the law was formulated to be as inclusive as possible. If refugees could show they were of Jewish ancestry, they would be admitted to the recently established State of Israel and granted citizenship. As Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling has noted, “This law was considered the true embodiment of Zionism—the creation of a Jewish nation-state that would be a territory of asylum for any Jew in the world, whether persecuted or not.” Yet, this inclusivity, this broad definition of “Jewish” meant that the law was bound to clash with the more restricted meaning of the term as understood by Israel’s rabbinic authorities, all of whom were Orthodox Jews. Thus, the law became a constant source of conflict. As Asher Cohen noted, “From the founding of Israel onwards, the Law of Return was at the center of all debates about Jewish and Israeli identity.”

In his letter, Ben-Gurion reminded his interlocutors of the details of the law. After first stating that “in Israel there is no discrimination on the basis of religion,” he then went on to note, “However, Jews alone enjoy a special extra privilege afforded by the Law of Return. … Immediately upon arrival in Israel, and after expressing a desire to settle here, they automatically and instantly become Israeli citizens.” This “however” clause seemed to some observers to refute the contention that “there is no discrimination” in Israel. Israel afforded no such privileges to those Arabs who had remained in the State of Israel after the 1948 war. Nor did it permit Arabs who had fled or been exiled during that war to return. But Ben-Gurion and his respondents did not address this issue. By common consensus they seemed to agree that the Law of Return was not discriminatory. Israel was a “Jewish state” and one’s “Jewishness” determined whether one would be accepted as a citizen.

Toward the end of his letter, Ben-Gurion revealed his own vision of Israeli Jewish identity. “In Israel efforts must be made to increase shared and unifying properties and eliminate as far as possible those that separate and divide.” Ben-Gurion went on to contrast the Diaspora, where marriages with non-Jews were considered a threat to Jewish continuity, and the State of Israel, where these marriages could lead to the “assimilation of non-Jews into the Jewish people, particularly in families in which the children of mixed marriages have immigrated to Israel.” Thus, in Ben-Gurion’s view, intermarriage was a positive move for Israelis. Implicit in Ben-Gurion’s argument is the secular Zionist view that the function of Jewish law had been to preserve Jewish “national identity” in the two millennia of exile. Now that the exile had ended and the national home had been “reborn,” the law was no longer necessary. Thus, the law forbidding marriage between Jews and non-Jews was no longer relevant. In fact, it could be an impediment to Jewish national rebirth. For Ben-Gurion’s Orthodox Jewish opponents, however, this view was heresy. Historical circumstances, including the establishment of a Jewish state, could not alter the divine covenant and its expression in rabbinic law.

Who were these 51 intellectuals? To start with, they were all men, a fact that is striking by today’s standards of gender equality, particularly as the issue at hand concerned the status of the child’s mother. Twenty of the scholars lived in Israel; 31 in Europe and the United States. They seem to have been chosen by category: One-third were Orthodox rabbis; one-third were Jewish scholars affiliated with the more liberal trends in Judaism; and one-third were secularists, among them literary and other cultural figures. Forty-six of the 51 answered the letter. The majority of the responses to Ben-Gurion were brief and to the point. The two most extensive and detailed letters were from Haim Cohn, the legal adviser to Ben-Gurion’s government, and Shlomo Goren, military chaplain and later chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel.

Ben-Gurion’s decision to seek responses from scholars who lived outside of Israel presented the question of Jewish identity as one of general Jewish interest, not solely an Israeli concern. Ben-Gurion read these varied and fascinating letters, but in the end these scholars’ learned formulations had little effect on public policy. The Israeli government found a political solution to the 1958 parliamentary crisis that involved the realignment of the parties in the ruling coalition, without addressing the core question of “Who is a Jew?”

The responses to Ben-Gurion’s letter were first published in New York in 1965 under the editorship of professor Sidney Hoenig of Yeshiva University. In addition to the letters, that volume included essays by Orthodox Jewish scholars affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America. The book, with the title Jewish Identity: Who Is a Jew? was republished in a second edition in 2013. In both editions the tone of the presentation is quite clear and somewhat polemical. The editors, wishing to buttress the case for the Orthodox definition of Jewish identity, point out that of the 46 opinions received by Ben-Gurion, “Thirty-eight called for following Jewish law regarding the registration of children, namely, following the mother’s religion.” In 2002, Israeli sociologist Eliezer Ben-Rafael published these letters in a less polemical and more scholarly edition under the title Jewish Identities: Fifty Intellectuals Answer Ben-Gurion.

The wide variety of opinions that we find in these letters demonstrates the difficulty—or might we say futility—of attempting to define the term “Jew.” As one might expect, the scholars’ responses fall into three broad categories that mirror the categories of Ben-Gurion’s choice of respondents. For Orthodox Jews the definition of a Jew was simple, precise, direct, and specific: A Jew was either a child born to a Jewish mother, or a person who converted to Judaism under the direction of an Orthodox rabbi. This standard was immutable, with no exceptions possible. As one rabbi noted, answering the question “Who is a Jew?” did not require great erudition.

The eminent Talmudist Rabbi Aaron Kotler, founder of the Lakewood Yeshiva, opened his letter to Ben-Gurion in this way: “I am amazed at the fact that a question considering the purity and integrity of the Jewish people, whose preservation is the basis of our existence, should be posed as if it required some other solution or opinion from me. The question has a simple and explicit answer in the Holy Torah. … It is clear that a Jew is only someone who is a Jew according to the law of the Torah.” Rabbi Kotler goes on to explain what the law is: Only through birth or conversion is one a Jew. Another Orthodox Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Yekhiel Weinberg, wrote to Ben-Gurion, “This is a new question unimagined by preceding generations. A simple Jew, without philosophical predilections or newfound ideologies, would shrug his shoulders at this odd question that has arisen in the very generation of national rebirth and the return to our spiritual homeland.” Rabbi Weinberg’s comment about “newfound ideologies” was in fact a veiled reference to secular Zionism. He, however, was clearly not against Zionism in all of its forms, as some rabbis of the time were. The reference to “national rebirth” indicates his allegiance to religious, as opposed to secular, Zionist ideas.

Yet for Ben-Gurion and the other secularists in the Zionist leadership, “Jewishness” was national, rather than religious. “Jewishness” trumped Judaism, and “Israeliness” redefined Judaism. Perhaps the most explicitly secular response to Ben-Gurion’s letter was that of Haim Cohn, who had co-authored the Law of Return. Some years earlier Cohn wrote to the prime minister, “There is no better way for the state to act than to indicate the religion and nationality of the child as defined by the declaration of the parents.” For this legal scholar, a child’s parents, not state religious authorities, were the true arbiters of identity. Cohn asserted that, “For the purposes of immigration and citizenship, the child follows his parents.” Aware that rabbinic law would not accept the child of a non-Jewish woman as a Jew, Cohn argued that “the meaning of “Jew” in Knesset legislation is not identical to its meaning in religious law.” Orthodox Jewish scholars were bound to disagree with Cohn on this issue.

The issue of Jewish-Arab relations within Israel and the status of its Arab citizens did not arise in these extensive and learned deliberations, an oversight perhaps even more surprising than the lack of gender diversity among the co-respondents. One respondent who did address the question of Israeli-Arab rights was Akiva Ernst Simon, a professor at the Hebrew University and a student and colleague of the philosopher Martin Buber. Ben-Gurion’s contention that every Israeli citizen must be identified by both religion and nationality struck Simon as “injurious to democratic life in Israel.” Citing the absence of ethnic and religious designations in a United States passport, an absence which he considered “a conspicuous hallmark of active democracy,” Simon argued that “the Arab citizens of Israel are entitled to rest assured that the government of Israel is doing all it can to prevent an official document from serving as a potential instrument of discrimination.” Professor Simon’s warning about the consequences of discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens went unheeded.

Among the American respondents to David Ben-Gurion’s letter was Alexander Altmann, professor of philosophy at Brandeis University. Though ordained as an Orthodox rabbi Altmann responded as a university professor. He was more philosophical and pragmatic in his response than many of the Orthodox rabbis on Ben-Gurion’s roster. Altmann framed the issues underlying the status of children of a mixed marriage problem astutely, even prophetically, noting that “presumably, in these cases, the parents do not wish their children to undergo a rite of conversion. … The parents themselves are not observant and see no need for their child to be accepted as a convert, as they are satisfied with his being Jewish solely in the national sense of the term. … In effect, the question is … is there a category of Jews whose Judaism is limited to national affiliation alone.” After a long and thoughtful consideration of this ‘national affiliation’ question, Altmann decided against it. A purely national identity for Jews was for him untenable. “The whole of the national effort of the Jewish people stems from unity between religious faith and the desire to ensure the survival of the nation. … It is clear, therefore, that there can be no recognition of Jewish nationality as separate from religion.”

Despite this conclusion, which seemed to place the definition of Jewishness in the hands of the Orthodox rabbis, Altmann called for a conversion policy that was flexible and compassionate. He hoped that “at the crossroads at which we find ourselves at this time, when the different diasporas are coming together in Israel … the rabbis will approach the issue of converts charitably and will ease the acceptance into Judaism of those children whose parents have arrived in Israel as a place of refuge and freedom. … I pray that the rabbis in the State of Israel will do everything in their power to further the full integration of these children.”

From within the list of Israeli respondents to the letter, a similar plea for a more tolerant and less exclusive standard for “Jewishness” was expressed by the then highly esteemed novelist Hayim Hazaz. His reply to Ben-Gurion’s question expressed a decidedly secularist view of Israeli statehood. “The Jewish community in Israel,” Hazaz wrote, “triumphed over its enemies and established a state. It was established as a secular state in which religion has no ruling power, but is an option available to the individual if he so wishes. It therefore appears to me that Halakha has no power over the population registry. … Hence, if the father and the non-Jewish mother wish to have their son circumcised in order to be registered as a Jew, they should be accepted. For there is no greater virtue than a mother who gives her most prized possession, her son, to a nation that is not hers.” Hazaz’s and Altmann’s advice fell on deaf ears. Over the subsequent decades the Israeli rabbinate has become ever stricter in policing the borders of Judaism in the name of the state.

The Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem of the mid-1990s resulted in one of the most dramatic expressions of the conflict over Jewish identity. Among the many victims of the bombings were Russian immigrants to Israel who fell into that category of people who had the rights of Israeli Jews, but were not Jews according to the rabbinate. Thus, they could not be buried with full rites in a Jewish cemetery. Secular Israelis, who saw the victims of the bombings as Israelis who had given their lives for the Jewish state, were outraged by the refusal to bury them as Jews. But many Orthodox Jews defended the rabbinate’s decision.

Decades earlier, in 1965, Hebrew University professor Jacob Talmon, one of Israel’s leading intellectuals, suggested that “the Jewish religion may paradoxically be facing its supreme test precisely in the Jewish state, and the problem of Jewish identity may prove even more intractable there than in the countries of dispersion.” In the second decade of the 21st century, both Jewish identity and Israeli identity continue to resist precise definition, and Talmon’s observation seems more astute than ever. Today, in modern Israel’s 70th year, the definitions of Jewish and Israeli identity remain fluid and imprecise, and this lack of definition insures that Ben-Gurion’s question will return continuously to the public arena, not only in Israel, but wherever Jews reside.


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Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.