Who determines who is a Jew?

Who determines who is a Jew? August 17, 2012

In his 2008 Atlantic review of  Gregor von Rezzori’s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite Christopher Hitchens retells a “sour old joke” from the Nazi era.

Two elderly Jews [are] sitting in a Berlin park, with one of them reading a Yiddish paper and the other one scanning the pages of Der Stürmer. The latter Jew is laughing. This proves too much for the former Jew, who says: “It’s not enough you read that Nazi rag, but you find it funny?”

“Look,” replies the other. “If I read your paper, what do I see? Jews deported, Jews assaulted, Jews insulted, Jewish property confiscated. But I read Der Stürmer, and there’s finally some good news. It seems that we Jews own and control the whole world!”

Change the setting, transform Der Stürmer to any one of a number of Arab-language newspapers or television broadcasts, move the date to 2012 and the same joke would be fresh and relevant today. While the Muslim world today may be the most vocal source of Jew hatred, European anti-Semitism is alive and well too. And it takes a surprising number of forms: from the Church of England to 68’ers, in the salons of the chattering classes and amongst pro-Palestinian activists. Anti-Semites can be found from left and right.

Anti-Semites have also risen to prominence in some political parties including Hungary’s Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom). Jobbik leaders have accused Jews of buying up the country’s lands, taking over the banks and newspapers, and exercising a fell hand over the affairs of state. Into this mix comes an Associated Press story about one of Jobbik’s leaders, Csanad Szegedi. The lede begins:

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — As a rising star in Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party, Csanad Szegedi was notorious for his incendiary comments on Jews: He accused them of “buying up” the country, railed about the “Jewishness” of the political elite and claimed Jews were desecrating national symbols.

Then came a revelation that knocked him off his perch as ultra-nationalist standard-bearer: Szegedi himself is a Jew.

Following weeks of Internet rumours, Szegedi acknowledged in June that his grandparents on his mother’s side were Jews — making him one too under Jewish law, even though he doesn’t practice the faith. His grandmother was an Auschwitz survivor and his grandfather a veteran of forced labour camps.

Since then, the 30-year-old has become a pariah in Jobbik and his political career is on the brink of collapse. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Szegedi is reported as being shocked by these revelations. However, his fierce xenophobic politics and his Presbyterian faith appear not to be enough to prevent his Jobbik allies from cutting him dead. A Jew is a Jew by blood — not by faith or self-identification it appears for the fascists in Hungary, who seem perturbed at having a Jew in their midst.

The odious Mr. Szeged has sought the counsel of Rabbi Slomo Koves of Hungary’s Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch community to help him through this trauma of learning he is Jewish.

“As a rabbi … it is my duty to receive every person who is in a situation of crisis and especially a Jew who has just now faced his heritage,” Koves said.

…”Csanad Szegedi is in the middle of a difficult process of reparation, self-knowledge, re-evaluation and learning, which according to our hopes and interests, should conclude in a positive manner,” Koves said. “Whether this will occur or not is first and foremost up to him.”

The Szegedi controversy reminds me of a passage from Alan Furst’s 2001 book  Kingdom of Shadows: “Morath didn’t mention Bethlen’s well-known definition of the anti-Semite as ‘one who detests the Jews more than necessary’.”

Though this wonderful novel may be the non-specialist’s introduction to the aphorism, it is none the less a true statement made by Hungary’s pre-war Prime Minister Count István Bethlen.

The article goes into further detail as to why Szegedi is considered to be a Jew.

Judaism is traced from mother to child, meaning that under Jewish law Szegedi is Jewish. Szegedi said he defines himself as someone with “ancestry of Jewish origin — because I declare myself 100 per cent Hungarian.”

Under the traditional definition of “who is a Jew”, this definition is correct and is the criteria used by Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. Yet Reform Judaism in 1983 recognized patrilineal Jews—those born of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother—as full Jews, provided they followed the Jewish faith.

A further twist in this debate is Israel. Reform Judaism’s position is not accepted by the Israeli rabbinate, which takes matrilinealism as the criterion for Jewish descent. Most Conservative rabbis and almost all Orthodox rabbis would also decline to recognize conversions performed by Reform rabbis for converts to Judaism on halachic grounds.

How should journalists decide who is a Jew? In this story the conservative/orthodox matrilineal definition is used. This may be appropriate as the Jewish community in Hungary follows this line. Yet the AP’s readers are found in the Angl0sphere, where the majority of Jews follow the Reform view of Jewish identity. Should it not interpret events according to the lights of its readers?

Nazi race ideology would classify Szegedi as a mischling — a half Jew. A German mischling was subject to severe restrictions under the Nazi race laws, but mischlinge in the Eastern territories occupied by the Nazis were classified as full Jews and exterminated. Szegedi appears not to want to accept his Jewish ancestry — and protests that he is a Christian and 100 per cent Hungarian.

Distasteful as this topic may be, has Szegedi the right to construct himself? Is he a Jew? Should he be a Jew? Who gets to say?

What say you GetReligion readers? Who has the right to decide — and how should the press approach such situations?


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • You have two issues, one of personal faith and one of ethnicity. Szegedi is Christian (albeit an uncharitable one) by faith and half-Jewish by ethnicity. Likewise, closer to home, President Obama is Christian by faith and half-Muslim by ethnicity. If you follow the bloodline rules (through the mom in Judaism and through the dad in Islam) they can be deemed Jewish and Muslim respectively.

    However, we tend to go by the personal faith angle in the Anglosphere, partly due to our Christian roots. I’m reminded of Jesus’ dissing of Jews taking pride in being sons of Abraham in Matthew 3:9(NIV)-“I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” That’s the rubric we go by in the US, going with what you believe rather than who your grandparents were.

    The more ethnocentic groups tend to look more at the blood; Szegedi could be the next Billy Graham and he’d still be a Jew to his Hungarian nativist ex-allies.

    • amspirnational

      Szegedi, it was made clear, was punished by Jobbick because of his attempts to bribe
      his informant, not because of his actual ancestry. Since the Nazis themselves made many exceptions (read “Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers”) Bryan Mark Rigg it is impossible to tell what might have happened
      had not the attempted bribe taken place.

  • JWB

    What seems relevant here is that he is considered a “Jew” in some sense recognized by a) Hungarians, or some relevant subset of Hungarians; and b) the Orthodox rabbi with whom he is now interacting. I frankly don’t know to what extent Anglospheric Jews who may be affiliated with Reform synagogues (or no synagogue) have fully internalized the official position on the patrilineal issue in their folk/cultural sense of “who is a Jew.” On the other hand, I suppose I don’t know what position Hungarian anti-Semites take toward those of mixed ancestry whose Jewish ancestry is all on the father’s side. The Israeli Law of Return covers certain people whose Jewish ancestry is patrilineal (without necessarily taking the position that they are “Jews” for halakhic purposes) in part, as I understand it, because anti-Semites in some parts of Eastern Europe did not limit themselves to the traditional halakhic matrilineal definition.

  • GR has examined this before, e.g., coverage of the religious gerrymandering (as Justice Kennedy said in a different connection) resorted to by the National Jewish Population Survey (http://www.getreligion.org/2004/07/test-question-define-jewish-and-give-three-examples/)

    I have long been frustrated by the double bind that someone can say “I spit on G_d, I spit on Torah, I spit on halakhah”, and all that counts is who his mother was. But as soon as he says “I believe in Jesus”, it abruptly ceases to matter who his mother was. Clear as Gowanus Creek.

    Apparently “the” Jews must think that Daniel Pearl should have told his captors “My mother was a Jew, my father was a Jew AND I reject Jesus, I am a Jew.”

    Then there is the old saw that “a Jew is anyone someone else says is a Jew”.

    (Retiring to reread Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!”)

    Will, “first-degree Mischling”

  • Jerry

    What say you GetReligion readers? Who has the right to decide — and how should the press approach such situations?

    This ranks up with are Mormons Christians and who gets to decide and how the press should approach such situations. There are no good answers because whatever you write, someone will object and give 20 reasons why you’re wrong.

    In this case it appears everyone is basically agreed so the press should report that. If there’s a controversy, report the controversy. That’s about all that I think can be done.

  • sari

    The best policy is usually to accept the proffered label. The one exception would be when speaking about members of a group like Jews for Jesus or Messianic Jews, who are considered non-Jews by the entire Jewish community. The reality of Szegedi’s status is also much more complicated than what’s described in the article; no observant shul would call him up for an aliyah until the issue of where he stands is resolved–his personal beliefs would need to change, he would need to renounce Christianity, and he would need to adopt some level of observance.

    Israel’s Law of Return is a different issue, since it was created to provide citizenship to anyone persecuted for being Jewish; a distinction is made between the Jew of patrilineal descent who faces death for practicing Judaism and the non-threatened American Reform Jew of patrilineal descent who wants to make aliyah.

    Small quibble: I have not attended any Orthodox synagogue– left, right or center, that accepts Conservative conversions. It is a huge problem at religious events, where it’s customary to call up family members for different honors during the services. Also, because many Chabadniks believe that the last Rebbe was the Mashiach and that he will return, some Orthodox leaders have declared their Jewishness iffy and will refrain from buying food, particularly meat or ritual items (e.g., scrolls for mezuzot or t’fillin) under Chabad supervision.

  • Johannes Oesch

    The GR-author rightly points out that the results depend on the individual, on the denomination which one follows and on the country one lives in. The press should mirror theses different angles. It might be an interesting piece of information to American readers, that in Germany, you can go to city hall or the local court house (depending on which state you are in) and have your renounciation of your religious membership registered. After paying some processing fees, the court house or the municipal office will forward this renounciation to the respective denomination. The Jewish synagogues accept these renounciations, if they receive them. Likewise the Roman-Catholic dioceses and the mainline Lutheran/Reformed territorial church bodies accept this way of handling the opting out of a denomination.

    • asshur

      For the sake of completness, you should mention that this “de-registering” has consequences not known in most of the rest of the world, as it is the only way to get exempted from the “Kirchensteuer” (church tax, a kind of tithe directly out from your income tax), which can be non-negligible (up to 9% of the income tax)

  • I don’t see any journalistic dilemma here at all. By the consensus of all groups involved, Jewish and anti-Semetic, alike, he’s a Jew. The different Jewish traditions may disagree over whether the child of a Jewish father and a gentile mother can be a Jew, but they all agree that anyone who’s maternal grandmother is Jewish is also. And while the Nazis may have drawn some distinction between Jews and “half-Jews,” they were willing to send all of them to their deaths. I would only have a problem calling him a Jew if the lineage was only on his father’s side and no Jewish tradition would acknowledge him. In that case I would simply refer to him as having Jewish ancestry.

  • JWB

    It’s separately a bit odd to refer to the fellow as “Presbyterian.” I assume what they mean is that he is or was a member of the Magyarországi Református Egyház (more or less, “Hungarian Reformed Church”), the largest group in Hungary’s sizable Protestant minority, which is Reformed/Calvinist in its theology (at least ancestrally), but is that rara avis a Reformed Church with an episcopal form of polity. It’s even worse than referring to a member of the Dutch Reformed Church as Presbyterian would be.

    • Johannes Oesch

      JWB is right as to the Hungarian “Reformatus” Church body. This church body, to be sure, holds quite cordial relationships with American Presbyterians. So here is my question to GR: How far may a journalist go in using halfcorrect terms in order to being better understood by the audience?

      • George Conger

        Johannes question goes to the heart of the issue I had hoped to raise. The case of Csanad Szegedi is colorful in itself, but was my entre in the greater question of identity. Who is a Jew? Who is a Presbyterian? It is also the underlying issue that has been raised in the womenpriests posts of recent months. Can I call myself a Catholic priest even though the Catholic Church (large C, the one headed by the Bishop of Rome) does not recognize me as a Catholic priest?

        There is a partial analogy to those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery. The common press treatment is to let a person say I am a man, I am a woman out of courtesy (even if this claim cannot be upheld by chromosomes.)

        In this Szegedi case, I have no problem saying he is a Jew. But in the case of Ethiopian Jews — or Kariates — who trace their lineage from the father’s line and are not automatically accepted as Jews by the Orthodox — I would call them Jews as that is how they identify themselves even though some Jews would not accept their Jewishness.

        I think the use of the word Presbyterian in this case is fair as the Hungarian Reformed Church is part of that tradition — though not Presbyterian in the sense an American would see it. E.g., PCUSA, PCA etc.

        But the question as to who has the authority to determine these issues is an open one.

  • JWB

    Perhaps Mr. Szegedi is himself a strict Calvinist in his beliefs, but http://hetivalasz.hu/english_periscope/shamans-in-the-pantry-25940 is an interesting article from a few years ago indicating that some people around the Jobbik wing of Hungarian nationalism were interested in various sorts of neo-paganism and/or syncretistic combinations of the Magyars’ (imagined or conjecturally reconstructed) pre-Christian beliefs with Christianity, complete with wacky notions such as that Jesus himself was not Jewish but rather a “Parthian prince.”