Who is a Jew?

A short story. About an age-old history.

Tzvi Fishman ,

A woman completes her conversion to Judaism at a Jerusalem Bet Din
A woman completes her conversion to Judaism at a Jerusalem Bet Din
Flash 90

Because his family name was Tamir, he would cast the final vote in the Knesset’s roll call of names on the vote to change the definition of who is a Jew. The new law proposed that the State of Israel would recognize as a Jew any person who strongly identified with Jewish tradition and Jewish culture, and with the principles of democracy and majority rule.

No longer would the Rabbis determine who was a Jew. Conversion would come under the authority of the State of Israel, not the Chief Rabbinate. Jewish Halakhah would have no say in the matter. A special Court of Conversion would rule on all legal matters pertaining to the revolutionary new conversion process. Instead of Rabbis, “Conversion Judges” would preside over the procedure. “Conversion Educators” would meet with all candidates to teach them the foundations of Jewishness and to make sure that candidates were serious and sincere in their desire to convert. Candidates would have to pass both a written and oral exam. Mikvah, brit milah, and the affirmation to observe the commandments of the Torah would all be relics of the past.

Robert Tamir tried to appear calm as he entered the Knesset plenum for the historic vote. All eyes were upon him. All cameras were focused his way. Not only was he to cast the final vote at the very end of the roll call, his vote would break the ideological deadlock and determine whether the “Who is a Jew” proposal was rejected or whether it would become the new law. The truth was, even at this late moment, he hadn’t decided whether he would vote for or against the bill.

Members of his party, and Knesset Members from the Center and Left rushed forward with broad smiles to shake his hand and give him encouraging slaps on his back. They all knew about his indecision. The whole country knew. He had become the most famous person in Israel for the past few weeks as the day of the historic vote approached and the drama filled the news around the clock.

Instinctively, the whole country knew that the issue was crucial. For the past month, Tamir had lived his life in a constant pressure cooker. Every day, politicians on the Left and Right called him on the phone. Leading members of the governing coalition visited his home in the wee hours of the night to convince him. Rabbis followed him wherever he went. Demonstrations, for and against him, were held every evening outside of his home. He thought he would have a nervous breakdown from all of the tension and strain.

Even worse than the curses of the Rabbis and the boos of the religious youth who condemned him wherever he appeared, the looks he received at home from his wife and children tore his heart into two, just like the nation itself.

The forty-year-old, American-born Robert Tamir came into the world as Robert Tilman. Twenty years before, as a Zionist idealist from a semi-religious family, he had come to Jerusalem to study for a year in Hebrew University. Falling in love with the country, he Hebraized his name to Tamir, made Aliyah, earned a Master’s Degree in Education, and became an overnight hero in Israel when he risked his life saving three fellow soldiers who had been badly wounded by terrorist snipers in Hevron.

While he enjoyed teaching, he longed to help the nation on a more national level. Now that he was famous, and not just anoter oleh, he had no trouble finding a high-ranking position with the Bnei Akiva Youth Movement. Politically, he leaned toward the right ofr center so it was the next natural step to join the Likud. He quickly moved up the ranks, becoming a well-liked member of the Knesset for his idealist yet generally centrist views.

However, after his first two terms, he realized that he would not rise any higher in the upper echelon of the party, so when a new, more pro-settlement faction was formed, he accepted the invitation to join the “Tzion Shelanu” break-away party which received enough votes in the next election to keep him in the Knesset. When the government survived little less than a year, the head of the Tzion Shelanu party surprised everyone by sealing a brit with the largest central-leftist party, tipping the electoral scales in favor of the left. Tamir had to swallow a lot of his ideological beliefs to keep in line with his party’s new liberal leanings, but when he was offered to head the Housing Ministry in the next government, he kept his mouth shut, believing he could do more worthwhile things for the nation in his new ministerial position than he could as a regular member of the Knesset.

And while the new government was prepared to surrender additional parts of Eretz Yisrael for peace, something which Tamir in his heart of hearts believed was suicidal, he went along with the troubling agenda, trusting that the Arabs would sabotage any peace plan as they had done so often in the past.

Even when the once anti-compromise Tzion Shelanu leader agree to welcome a clearly anti-Zionist Arab party into the coalition to insure a Knesset majority, Tamir kept quiet, maintaining that the nation was tired of eternal division and that national unity was the call of the hour, especially considering the ever-increasing threat from Iran.

Regarding religious matters, throughout his career in the Knesset he had taken a parve stance on religious issues. While his parents had belonged to a Modern Orthodox synagogue in America, he himself never became an ardent mitzvah observer. Nevertheless, he respected Judaism and its traditions, believing that it had been the glue which had kept the Jewish People intact throughout the long generations of persecution in the Galut.

When a new kosher supervision law was proposed which effectively nullified the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, he voted along with the coalition. As if in atonement for abandoning his hitherto pleasant and respectful relationship with the religious parties, he ordered that more housing be provided for the Haredi community and he pushed forward a few stalled building projects in Yesha.

But the proposed “Who is a Jew” law was different. The new law threatened to uproot the very essence of the Jewish Nation. Instead of defining a Jew by the laws of the Torah and Talmudic tradition, the matter would become purely secular, based on vague guidelines of identification with Jewish Tradition and Culture, which meant, as one of the Haredi Knesset members had cynically observed, “If this treacherous law is passed, then anyone who likes bagels and gefilte fish can become a Jew.”

Tamir himself realized the absurdity and danger inherent in the proposal. Besides creating a huge balagan in the realm of halakhic issues of marriage and the like, of which he was not an expert, it could create a situation whereby every homeless bum in America or Haiti could declare that he felt Jewish and win Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Within a generation the State of Israel could be transformed from a Jewish State to a State where non-Jews formed the majority.

On the one hand, if he voted with his conscience against the enactment, the law wouldn’t gain a majority of votes to pass and the government would fall. True, he could always find a decent job elsewhere, but nothing as rewarding and important to the country as being Housing Minister. More than that, in return for his support of the government and his vote in support of the new law, the head of the Tzion Shelanu party had promised to appoint him Minister of Foreign Affairs, one of the most influential positions in Israel where he could unquestionably help the country even more, perhaps to even save it from a dangerous peace deal forcing Israel to relinquish vast territories vital to the defense of the country.

Furthermore, he had to be rational. The country’s population had tired of religious coercion and the strict allegiance to Halakha was threatening to alienate Diaspora Jews from the Jewish Homeland. Without a connection to Israel, Tamir knew that they would be lost and assimilate entirely into the Gentile nations where they lived. Thus there were many positive aspects to his going along with the government and not rocking the ship.

Why then couldn’t he make up his mind? His indecisiveness came from his not being sure that all of these serious considerations were correct. Not being a fanatic believer in G-d, it didn’t bother him when a leading Rabbi called him an uprooter of Judaism worse than Herod. Nor did it cause him to lose sleep when the spiritual head of Shas Party called him the new Jesus Christ. What upset him the most was when his twelve-year old son told him that his school friends in the dati-lite school he attended called him a marshmallow Jew. “How is your Abba, the marshmallow,” they would taunt the boy all through the day.

He even sensed that his wife, who had also been raised religious like him, and who still voted Likud, felt disgusted with his loyalty to the Tzion Shelanu party and to their obsessive insistence to pass the controversial new conversion law. She insisted they were doing so in order to preserve their chairs in the government. “You know as well as I do that the head of the party would sell his soul to the devil to become Prime Minister.”

The week before the vote, the Attorney General ordered that Tamir be provided with bodyguards in light of the death threats he had received. The night before the fateful vote all of the heads of the coalition called to wish him success.

The head of Tzion Shelanu began their phone conversation by saying, “How is Israel’s new Foreign Minister?” But two leading Rabbis from the Religious Zionist camp phoned with their blessings, saying they hoped that he would remain faithful to the Jewish People and to God by voting against the new law.

“How are you planning to vote?” his wife asked him before she went to sleep.

“I still don’t know,” he replied.

After taking two Acemol tablets to soothe the pounding in his head, he managed to fall asleep at three o’clock. At six in the morning he was awoken by a familiar voice calling his name. It was his aging and ailing mother. She sat in her wheelchair by his bed. She and his father had finally made Aliyah in order to spend their last years in Israel. When his father had died, Tamir persuaded his mother to move in with his family. His wife had graciously agreed.

Tamir sat up in bed. He held his mother’s hand in his.

“You are a Jew,” his mother told him. “I’m a Jew. Your father was proud to be a Jew. Your and grandparents and their parents before them were Jews. Throughout history the goyim have tried to destroy us because we are Jews. We have been Jews ever since Avraham Avinu. You realize that, don’t you?” she asked.

Tamir nodded his head. His mother squeezed his hands as best as she could in her frail condition.

“Don’t betray the Jewish People,” she told him.

“Who have you been speaking to, Ema,” he asked her. “Has someone put you up to this?”

The old woman ignored his suspicion.

“Don’t be a marshmallow like your son calls you when you are not in the house. Make your son proud of you. Make me proud of you. Make your father in heaven proud of you. Make God be proud of you too.”

Robert Tamir was sweating when he finally sat down in his seat in the Knesset. People were still crowding around him when the vote started. Alef, bet, gimmel. Slowly the names were called out in alphabetical order. His name would be last. Meanwhile the voting went on as expected. No surprises. No sudden changes of mind. Half for the new law and half against. His mother’s voice rang in his ears. Around him, the faces of his party comrades smiled at him almost grotesquely. He could feel his hands trembling. His heart pounded. “Don’t betray the Jewish People,” his mother’s voice said.

“Tamir!” the voice of the Knesset Speaker called out.

All of the eyes in the Knesset stared his way. Camera lenses were aimed at him like guns. Throughout the country, people sat by televisions, radios, smartphones, and computers, awaiting his response… Both Jews and Gentiles around the globe waited to hear the results.

The name “Tamir” echoed throughout the great hall of the Knesset.

“Tamir!” it called out again when he failed to respond.

“Knesset Member Robert Tamir!”

“Negged!” he heard his voice reply. “I vote negged!”

In his home, in front of the television, his son shouted out in with great happiness. His wife smiled with contentment and relief and shed a joyful tear. “Thank God,” his mother said quietly as she sat in her wheelchair, her gaze glued to the television as religious members of the Knesset and members of the Likud gathered around her son and lifted him in the air.

“Your father saved us,” Tamir’s wife told her son. “Today your father saved the nation.”

The boy cheered and rushed forward to give his mother a thankful and loving embrace.

“Thank the good Lord,” said the old lady. “Thank the good Lord.”

Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Before making Aliyah to Israel in 1984, he was a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbis A. Y. Kook and T. Y. Kook. His other books include: "The Kuzari For Young Readers" and "Tuvia in the Promised Land". His books are available on Amazon. Recently, he directed the movie, "Stories of Rebbe Nachman."



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