Friday, May 02, 2008

Israel at 60 - take 3

As someone who once competed in the preliminaries of the International Youth Bible Quiz (and was eliminated in the very first round) I was particularly interested in this story: "What if a 'messianic Jew' wins Israel's annual Bible quiz?" that appeared in the JTA. The article begins:

JERUSALEM - Should Bat El Levy be asked at Israel's international youth Bible quiz next week about the messiah's coming, she may find herself in a bind.

The 17-year-old Jerusalem girl is a world-class scriptural scholar who, as it happens, believes in Jesus.

It might never have been an issue, were it not for the sleuthing of an Israeli anti-missionary group, Yad LeAhim, which sees in Levy's participation in the annual Jewish Bible contest a threat to Judaism.

Yad LeAhim director Shlomo Dov Lipschitz circulated a letter to Israel's top rabbis this week calling for pressure on the Education Ministry to disqualify Levy from the quiz, which takes place every year on Israeli Independence Day. This year it will be held May 8 under the auspices of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The finals of the contest, sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Education, are held every year in Jerusalem. They are broadcast live on Israeli T.V. It is such an institution, that already in the 1970's, it was parodies by the Israeli comedy troop "Hagashash Hakhiver" (Kama paamim katuv ba'tanakh 'gefen' bimkom 'gafen' v kama paamin 'gafen' bimkom 'gefen' - ha mavin yavin.) For years this contest has been run in all sorts of diaspora Jewish schools, where it is funded by grants from the Jewish Agency. The winners at various schools go to provincial/state, then national, and then regional contests. And then the best of the Diaspora get to go to Jerusalem to compete with the best of Israel.

The problem - as seen even in the brief snippet quoted above - is that the contest has two identities. It is sometimes called "Israel's international youth Bible quiz" and sometimes called "the annual Jewish Bible contest". I am not sure what its official name is, or actual ground rules are.

If it is a "Jewish Bible contest", then the question raised by Yad LeAhim is a reasonable one. I might argue that "messianic Jews" are still Jews, and should be allowed to compete, but the question is legitimate and the answer not so obvious. However, if it is indeed a Jewish only contest, why is the Israeli Ministry of Education sponsoring it? What about the 20% of Israeli school children who are not Jewish, even without counting messianic Jews.

If it is "Israel's international youth Bible quiz", then why shouldn't it be open to non-Jews. Let everyone compete, and in so doing honour the Torah. (Questions are asked only about the "Old Testament".)

The whole deal just points to the confusion over citizenship and religion in Israel, and the blurred boundaries between the realms of Zionism/Judaism/and the State. The very fact that- de facto the contest is funded and managed jointly by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Education make this clear. One can safely assume that the contest is not advertised to non-Jewish schools in the Diaspora, though for all we know that have some amazing Bible whizzes there too.

Secondly it raises the question of who is the contest trying to honour, and what is it trying to promote. It its trying to honor the Bible, Bible scholars, and Bible study, then why not open it up to non Jews? The prophets themselves foresee the day when all people will study "your ways" and seek guidance in Jerusalem. On the other hand, a Jewish only contest would seem to seek to honour only Jewish scholars, and promote only Jewish education. Not a bad thing, but is it something the State of Israel should be spending its money and efforts on? And should Jews and Jewish institutions be depending on the State of Israel to be playing this role for them?

In case your curious: the Israeli Ministry of Education "solved" the problem by stating that while indeed the contest i open only to Jews, since the girl in question is registered as "Jewish" on her Israeli Identity card, it is not up to them to second guess the Ministry of the Interior's registration department, and therefore she cloud compete. While this may show considerable bureaucratic ingenuity, it will not solve the deeper problem of Israeli identity, and the relationship of State, ethnicity, and religion that this incident reveals.


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