The New Republic has published a rather provoking exchange of letters between David Ben Gurion and Isaiah Berlin regarding the definition of who constitutes a Jew in the eyes of Israeli law. Writing in 1958, Berlin makes prophetic observations about the nature of Israel’s citizenship laws and how they would ultimately result in a civil rights crisis that could imperil the state.
If Israel is to be in the full sense a modern liberal State, the question of religious affiliation should make no difference to its laws of citizenship, or the civil and political rights enjoyed by its inhabitants. On the other hand, it is clear that there would have come into being no State of Israel if Judaism were merely a religion, and not, in some sense, a nationality as well. I assume that, for reasons of security, if none other, the inhabitants of Israel may at any rate for some time be required to register as either Jews or non-Jews of various categories. Should persons who are recognised (by members of their society, Jewish or non-Jewish) as Jews in the common sense of the word, but are not recognised as Jews by the rabbis interpreting the Halacha in the traditionally accepted manner, be regarded as politically and legally Jews or not? There can be no clear-cut or ready-made solution to this problem. If we are to rule out religious coercion even of the mildest kind–by the pressure of custom and public opinion–as being incompatible with the minimum requirements of individual liberty (and I cannot see how Israel can morally fail to do so–it was not denial of religious liberties that created Zionism), then there must exist a category of persons who will be entitled to register themselves as Jews by nationality, but not by religion.