We have received several letters in recent weeks complaining that our coverage of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), victim of the tragic shooting in Tucson, makes reference to her as Jewish, when in fact, they point out, she is not.
Giffords’ father is Jewish; her mother is a Christian Scientist. So according to halacha, she is not Jewish. One letter-writer insists it is “intellectually dishonest” to suggest otherwise.
But in a world where “who is a Jew” is the subject of an ongoing debate and “pro-Israel” is becoming increasingly fuzzy, Giffords’ status in the Jewish community is not simple — and worthy of reflection.
According to Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish denomination, which recognizes patrilineal descent, Giffords is Jewish. Clearly, the congresswoman defines herself by her Jewish roots. She belongs to a Tucson Reform congregation and has said that her first trip to Israel, in 2001, had a profound effect on her identity. What’s more, she appears to have applied her Jewish values to her work in Congress and in her personal life.
The former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Tucson noted that Giffords’ position on the status of illegal aliens — an especially contentious issue in her state — was influenced by her “sense of the Jewish values around how we treat the stranger.” And in an address she gave in 2006, she asserted: “In my family, if you want to get something done, you take it to the Jewish women relatives. Jewish women, by and large, know how to get things done.”
American Jewish society is changing dramatically. Fewer and fewer people define themselves by the denominational identities of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist; “just Jewish” is becoming more popular. What continues to bind us, though, is our concern for the survival, stability and strength of Jewish life and values.
Traditionalists argue that watering down the halachic definition of who is a Jew — one born of a Jewish mother or who converts according to halacha — weakens the Jewish people and leads to further assimilation. The more liberal point of view suggests that a Jewish community with an aging population and shrinking birth rate would be wise to be more inclusive, welcoming those living in Jewish households or having one Jewish parent. Birthright Israel, for example, has brought large numbers of such young people on Israel trips in the hopes of sparking or deepening their sense of Jewish identification and connection to the Jewish state.
An editorial in The Jerusalem Post concluded that “many ‘non-Jews’ are much more Jewish than their ‘Jewish’ fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.”
However one defines Jewishness, a people obsessed with its survival and desperately seeking allies should be finding ways to join rather than reject those who want to affiliate with us.