The case of Father Daniel, the Roman Catholic monk of Jewish origin who was refused a plea to be counted as a Jew by an Israeli Court, is now widely known. The writer of this article is therefore not prompted by a taste for the sensational. By the time this reaches his readers they will have had ample opportunity to reflect on the case for themselves. Naturally, many are puzzled because this is an unusual case and full of complexities. As far as Hebrew Christians are concerned, especially those in Israel, they are more than puzzled; they are perplexed, and with good reason. It is in an effort to sort out the tangle of this case that this article is written.

Hebrew Christians have been aware for some time of the precariousness of their position in Israel. The International Hebrew Christian Alliance has had occasion to consult Israeli officials and seek clarification on some important issues. There was, however, understandable reluctance on their part to embarrass the government before world opinion, particularly because of the internal political complications which tie the hands of the more liberal elements. But since the case of Father Daniel, which received wide publicity abroad, we face a new situation. There is now nothing to hide, and we are able to speak plainly, though without rancor.

It is a feat of providence that the test case should involve no less a man than Oswald Rufeisen (Father Daniel). He was referred to by one of the judges as “this remarkable man,” and with good reason. The man who was refused the right to the Law of Return which applies to every other Jew except the Christian, is a war hero. He has shown a quality of courage during the time of persecution by the Nazis which is seldom equaled (for details see “The Amazing Father Daniel,” Jewish Chronicle, Oct. 4, 1957). Hundreds of Jews now in Israel owe their lives to his daring exploits. If Oswald Rufeisen has been declared an alien because of his faith, there is little hope for the other Hebrew Christians.

The refusal to count Father Daniel as a Jew before law cannot easily be understood against our Western standards. It is only in the complex Jewish situation with the whole burden of the past that the case must be viewed.

When Oswald Rufeisen asked the Israeli court to call upon the Minister of the Interior (Home Secretary) to show cause why he should not be granted Israeli citizenship on the basis of the Law of Return, his appeal was to a secular court. Had it been a religious court which gave a negative answer there would be no surprise. In fact the presiding judge, Moshe Silberg, insisted that the court is guided by secular law, but the verdict was founded upon a religious motive. Here lies the reason for the ambiguity. In this respect the fault is not with the judges but with the law. The government decision which defines a Jew as a person “who declares himself in good faith to be a Jew and is not a member of another religion” is not a secular law, though it is left to a secular court to administer it. The fault on the part of the judges is in trying to rationalize it. In this respect the Minister of the Interior, Mr. Bar Yehuda, acted with greater honesty. In his personal letter to Father Daniel he frankly admitted that in his own opinion Father Daniel was fully entitled to be recognized as a Jew but that he was powerless to grant him the certificate he sought in view of a decision of the government. Mr. Bar Yehuda explained to Father Daniel that a minister cannot act according to his own opinion but rather must act within the limits of the law, though he may press for its amendment (cf. the document presented by the WCC, “Committee on the Church and the Jewish People,” Newsletter No. 1, 1963). The only dissenting judge, Justice Cohn, had all the force of both logic and legal justice on his side when he contended that the question of who is a Jew “is irrelevant to the interpretation of the Law of Return.” He based his view on the fact that in the State of Israel “religious laws are applicable to matters of marriage and divorce only.”

Article continues below

If our contention is justified, then a secular court which administers a religious law acts as a religious court. Here lies the other ambiguity: the court by setting itself the task of deciding whether an “apostate” can be a Jew has already approached its task upon the wrong presupposition. By calling Father Daniel an “apostate” prior to the verdict, it has not only passed a religious judgment but has already prejudiced the case. Justice Silberg could not have been unaware of the difficulty, as can be seen from his appeal to the popular meaning of “Jew” which “precludes the inclusion of an apostate.” But in a civilized country such an appeal is inadmissible. The norm of justice cannot depend upon popular prejudice. This is the very point which Jews have upheld during the time of the dispersion. They asked to be treated not according to the popular image of the populace but according to the laws of equity.

Justice Silberg went on to say that “whatever the theological outlook of a Jew in Israel may be—whether he be religious, irreligious or anti-religious—he is bound by an umbilical cord to historic Jewry, from which he draws his language and his festivals and whose spiritual and religious martyrs have nourished his national pride.” Implied in this sentence is the assumption that these marks of Jewishness cannot be predicated of Hebrew Christians. This brings us to the next aspect of the case.

Article continues below
‘Galut’ Psychology

The case of Father Daniel has taken Jewry by surprise. Jews have been reared in the tradition that “apostates” are ashamed of their Jewishness, that the Church induces them to sever all connections with their people, and that the motive behind conversion is to escape the stigma of being a Jew. Jews thus still think in terms of the Middle Ages and are unable to grasp that they are faced with a completely new situation. The modern Hebrew Christian, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, is not a “career meshummad” (apostate). He suffered at the hands of the Nazis, he has been counted among his people, he identifies himself with them and is proud of being a Jew. Insofar as it does not interfere with his religious convictions, he keeps festivals and holidays and is more Jewish in the religious sense than the secularized Jew.

If Father Daniel were not “bound by an umbilical cord to historic Jewry” he would have remained in Poland and would have tried to hide his Jewish origin. His settling in Israel and his plea for recognition bluntly contradict the judge’s contention.

In fairness to the Jewish people we must be prepared to recognize that inhibitions acquired through centuries of suffering are not shed within a few years.

In the dispersion the Jewish people was engaged in a whole-time fight for survival. Judaism served as the main bulwark against assimilation (cf. Leon Simon, Studies in Jewish Nationalism, 1920). But the Jewish situation has undergone a radical change, and Judaism is not anymore the bond it was in the past. Israel itself is the best example of this change. What keeps Jews together today is not religion but the memory of the past, the historic sense of a common destiny and ethnic loyalty. Justice Silberg exposes himself to grave criticism when he says that “only the very naïve could possibly believe or think that we are creating a new culture in Israel.” Admittedly, there is a vital connection between past and present; yet that connection is in terms of constant transition. Indeed, Israel is creating a new culture, and it is not a religious culture, whether the judge knows it or not. This transition from a religious to a secular culture can hardly be called a “new edition” of the past; it is rather a break with the past. The fact that Justice Silberg and his colleagues are not aware of this shows the extent of their imprisonment in galut mentality.

Article continues below

The problem of Israel lies in the ambiguity of a psychological attitude. On the one hand it is trying to organize itself on democratic principles as a modern state, but on the other hand it is tied hand and foot by ancient taboos and prejudices. The dilemma has been well expressed by Herzl Rosenblum, editor of the Tel Aviv Yediot Aharonot, in a comment which reveals the ambivalence of the situation; “If the court decides he is a Jew, it will be a catastrophe for world Judaism. If the court decides against him, the Gentile public will regard us as a theocracy” (cf. Time, Dec. 7, 1962). Apparently the worthy editor would like to have the cake and eat it, too. At least he is aware of the contradiction. This cannot be said of other writers. Mr. Justus, of the daily Maariv, is an interesting example. In an article entitled “A Brother in Trouble” he says:

Perhaps this is against the principles of tolerance and against the foundations of progressive society, but we do not “love” meshummadim (apostates). Probably our attitude is narrow-minded but we confess without blushing, in this respect we lack broadness of heart. There is no cosy corner for this meshummad in our heart. All the strings of our heart retract in abhorrence. There is only one sentiment there, a sense of outrage.

At the same time the writer avers his faith in democracy and boasts that Israel is a democratic country (Maariv, Nov. 30, 1962).

The Jewish press abroad has been more restrained. The editor of the Toronto The Jewish Standard makes a gallant effort to distinguish between Judaism and Jewishness and admits that logically it should be possible for a Jew to retain his Jewishness in terms of culture while at the same time professing “another religion in place of Judaism.” But he doubts whether such a person could make “an effective contribution to the enrichment of Jewish life,” as if a man’s status as a Jew depended upon such a contribution. (Cf. The Jewish Standard, Toronto, Dec. 1, 1962. Oddly enough the other Canadian Jewish journal, The Canadian Jewish News, sees in the court’s decision an expression of Israel’s adherence to the principle of democratic society—by some remarkably complicated process of reasoning [cf. The Canadian Jewish News, Dec. 14, 1962].)

Article continues below

The extent of Jewish prejudice was revealed to this writer when the most outstanding liberal Jew in Canada took sides against Father Daniel. Rabbi Abraham Feinberg is known as a fearless fighter for human rights and as an upholder of high ideals. But his liberal views break down on the point of Hebrew Christians: a converted Jew can no longer be a Jew; the Israeli court is right (cf. The Toronto Star, Dec. 7, 1962).

A Source Of Embarrassment

There is an understandable reluctance on the part of the Jewish press to advertise the case of Father Daniel. Western culture is sustained by the principles of freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship. Israel as a Western state is culturally committed to these values. Herzl, though recognizing the religious bond which kept Jewry together, allowed the right of the individual to believe as he liked. In spite of persecution, the founder of Zionism held to European ideals. Writing of the future Jewish State, Herzl professed: “We have learned tolerance in Europe; and I say this without irony” (“Wir haben Toleranz in Europa gelernt. Ich sage das nicht einmal spöttisch” [Theodor Herzl, Der Judenstaat, 6th Auflage, p. 84]). Ben Gurion remained loyal to the Zionist ideal when he promised: “The State of Israel will not be a State of halakha but a State of law” (quoted by Shalom Yaron, counsel for Father Daniel; cf. Jerusalem Post, Nov. 20, 1962). Unfortunately, political expediency has forced the hand of the majority party. Because of the coalition with the orthodox it had to compromise with an ideal. We thus have a situation in which principles of democracy and religious fanticism are in daily conflict.

For the Jewish communities abroad the uneasy compromise achieved in Israel is a source of obvious embarrassment. The reason for this is near at hand. Western Jewry in order to exist has to uphold principles which stand in contradiction to the life and practice of the State of Israel. In the West, especially in the United States, Jewry champions the cause of complete separation of state and church. It does this because it knows from experience that only in a secular society can Jews exist without restrictions (cf. David Danzig, “The New Map of Christianity,” Commentary, Sept., 1961, particularly p. 226). But in Israel the position is reversed. Here, the most vital aspect of life, personal status, is surrendered to the jurisdiction of rabbinic courts.

Article continues below

Further, because of its minority position Jewry in the West upholds the ideals of freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. But in Israel not only Hebrew Christians but even liberal Jews are a persecuted minority.

In the West, especially in the United States, Jews go out of their way to emphasize the “Judaeo-Christian heritage.” But in Israel even counsel for the defense of Father Daniel could speak of a man’s right “to believe in other gods” as if Christians did not profess the God of Israel (cf. Jerusalem Post, Nov. 20, 1962). The moving spirit behind Brotherhood Week, a characteristic feature of American life, is the Jewish community. The purpose is to emphasize our common humanity in spite of differences of creed and race. But in Israel creed is a divisive factor which creates second- and third-class citizens.

It is obvious that what is wrong in one country cannot be right in another.

Hebrew Christian Reaction

Hebrew Christians have known about the precariousness of their position in Israel from the beginning. At the end of the British mandate many left the country, and for this they were bitterly criticized by Israeli officials. Admittedly some left for selfish reasons, but others did so because they knew that there was no room for them in Jewish society. They have been proved right. But this will in no way alter our attitude to the State of Israel and to our people. There is no ill feeling on our part, no bitterness. The price we have to pay for our loyalty to Jesus Christ is part of our Christian profession. Those of us who thought that the 2,000 years of galut have made a difference to the Jewish attitude are better disillusioned. The Master told us that the disciple is not above his teacher (Matt. 10:24 f); if they reject Him they will reject us. We will rather have it that way than be met with indifference. But the main issue is still unresolved. Jesus complained of sinat hinnam—“they hated me without a cause” (John 15:25)—and this applies to us as well.

Causeless hate is a grievous sin. The Talmud tells us that because of it the Temple was destroyed (Yoma 9b). Indeed hatred is a destructive force; this Jews know better than anyone else. The outbursts against Hebrew Christians in the Israeli press are ample evidence of such hatred. The question arises whether the Hebrew Christian will now become what the Jew was in Gentile society—the scapegoat and the whipping boy. Will there be a manhunt for Hebrew Christians who have entered Israel under false pretenses now that they are outlawed citizens? There is no doubt that the ultraorthodox will attempt to promote such a search.

Article continues below

We pray that our Hebrew Christians in Israel will have the courage to persevere not only for their own sakes but for the sake of the Jewish people. It would be a tragedy if Israel became a state ruled by orthodox bigots. It is for this reason that we have to reject Rabbi David Greenberg’s contention that because Father Daniel will become a citizen of Israel anyway, though not on the basis of the Law of Return, there is no need to get excited (cf. Time, Jan. 4, 1963).

This is a curious disregard of facts. The present definition of who is a Jew is only an administrative regulation by the government. In the strict sense of the word it is not yet law. But there is a bill before parliament to give it legal sanction. When this happens all Hebrew Christians who entered the country as Jews will find themselves illegal immigrants. But even now, to all intents and purposes, they are already without legal status. Rabbi Greenberg writes as if Father Daniel were the only Hebrew Christian in the land.

Now, he will perhaps appreciate the reason for “excitement.”

It is my contention that a country which discriminates between man and man, a country which takes a child from his mother because the father was a non-Jew, a country which forces a couple to live out of wedlock because the wife is a Christian, a country which deprives a woman of her citizenship because she was discovered to be baptized—this is a country in danger of losing its soul, which God forbid!

As the Jew was the acid test of Western Christianity, so the Hebrew Christian has become the acid test of Israeli society. As long as we are not allowed to profess our faith without let or hindrance, Israel is not yet a democracy.

The International Hebrew Christian Alliance reiterates the resolution passed by the Executive in 1958 and hopes for better days:

That this Committee, representative of Hebrew Christians throughout the world, emphatically declares that Jews who have accepted Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and have been baptized into the Christian Church, have not thereby ceased to be Jews, but remain an integral part of their people. Every member of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance regards himself as a Jew, loving the nation of which he is proud to have sprung, and pledged to its service. In particular Hebrew Christians in Israel declare themselves loyal in every way to the State in which they live and to which they belong.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.