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Israeli demand sparks ‘Jewish state’ debate
Deal breaker? » The Palestinians insist the state needs to represent all ethnic groups.

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"The Jewish people is not just a religion. It is also a national group that has a right to self-actualization," he said.

In fact, the question of what it means to be a Jew is a matter of debate — abroad and in Israel itself, where Orthodox rabbis fight to retain a monopoly over religious conversions that have the unusual corollary outcome of constituting a membership ticket to a "people" as well.

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"It’s hard to compare the matter to other countries because of the unique aspect of Judaism," said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"It is not just a religion or a nationality or an identity — it is all in one," said Hoenlein, who organized the conference that Netanyahu addressed.

Israel’s "Law of Return" combines the lineage and religion definitions. It grants citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, as well as to converts who have no Jewish heritage but are recognized by rabbis.

Consensus on the matter is extremely hard to find.

Many Jews around the world see their identity as a primarily a matter of religion. Plenty of Israelis think that a "Jewish state" should be more of a theocracy, outlawing work on the Sabbath, for example. At the same time, many Jews in Israel and elsewhere are not at all religious and view themselves as Jewish simply because they were born to Jewish parents — a situation not unlike that of ethnic Irish or Japanese.

Most confounding, perhaps, are the ethnic divisions that persist between the Jews themselves.

Israel’s founders were overwhelmingly European Jews, and that group — known as Ashkenazim — was numerically dominant among Jews before the Nazi Holocaust, diverse yet cohesive enough to lend credence to a national movement.

But the reality today in Israel is diverse. Almost half of the Jewish population of 6 million is descended from the Arab world — their background, history, and even appearance often starkly different from their European cohorts. Tensions over everything from music to food to prayer styles lurk just beneath the surface.

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In this situation, it is not uncommon for Israelis to refer to each other, not always with admiration, by distant country of origin — as "Moroccans" and "Yemenites," or "Bulgarians" and even "Americans."

As they observe all this, skepticism among Palestinians — many of whose communities were displaced by the Zionist movement — seems easy to understand.

"Judaism is a religion like Islam and Christianity," said Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian legislator. "Israel is a state, a nationality that represents all the groups and ethnicities in Israel — including the Palestinians."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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