Converts hit new Israeli barrier
The Israeli authorities are making it more difficult for converts who want to go and live in the Jewish state — and diaspora rabbis are not happy
SINCE IT is the mission of Zionism that as many Jews as possible live in Israel , you would assume that Israel would make it as easy as it could for Jews to move there. But you would not be reckoning with the realities of Israeli bureaucracy. Among prospective emigrants to Israel from Britain this year is a black family from South London who converted to Judaism. So readily have they embraced their new faith that they want to settle in the Jewish homeland. Their departure had been set for August until they hit an unexpected obstacle: the Israeli authorities have withheld approval of their aliyah.
Rabbi Rodney Mariner, convenor of the Reform Beth Din, which ratified their conversion, is mystified why “the plug was pulled.” According to the Law of Return, diaspora converts (whether Orthodox or Progressive) are as entitled to apply for Israeli citizenship as native Jews. “Any Reform congregation would have accepted that this family has done everything they are required to here,” he said. “They decided, for spiritual reasons, that the future for them and their kids was in Israel.”
Understandably, the family wants to remain anonymous. But whatever the reason for the delay, it points to a wider problem: the increasing wish of some in Israel to restrict the entry of converts into the country and to regulate conversions in the diaspora.
A few weeks ago, Israel’s Interior Ministry published new proposals to control the aliyah of converts. Among the main conditions is that applicants would have to have clocked up at least nine months’ study for their conversion (no conversion course in the UK takes less than 12 months) and, following conversion, then to have lived in the Jewish community for a further nine months. But critics contend that the new protocol discriminates against converts and interferes with the autonomy of the diaspora rabbinate.
Since most diaspora conversions are non-Orthodox, the conditions are “particularly designed to limit Reform and Conservative conversions”, argues Rabbi Uri Regev, the Israel-based president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. But protests have come not only from the non-Orthodox.
Rabbi Shaul Farber, the Orthodox head of Itim — the Jewish Life Information Centre in Israel, which advises potential converts — said: “These criteria demonstrate complete disregard and disrespect for the local Jewish community.”
The problem, he explains, began five years ago when the Interior Ministry feared that foreign workers attracted to Israel for economic reasons could procure paper conversions to get there. Hence, the ministry introduced a requirement for converts to have lived a year in their Jewish c o m m u - nit y a f t e r conversion before they could make aliyah.
“In 2003, we started getting calls from people who had converted in Orthodox Jewish courts and were being rejected for aliyah,” Rabbi Farber said.
In 2005, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the new regulations out of order but the ministry, he says, has continued to “drag its feet”.
Meanwhile, there are other moves to clamp down on converts. The mainstream Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America has bowed to pressure from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to administer conversions through special courts rather leave it in the hands of local community rabbis. Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently visited the United States to approve the appointment of dayanim to the new courts, thereby extending the authority of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate into the diaspora.
Rabbi Mariner thinks it is reasonable for Israel to expect converts to have “a bona fide connection” to the Jewish community. “I’ve got no problem with trying to stop charlatans. There is a terrible trade in Israel and outside of conversions for money,” he said.
But the credentials of converts are best determined by established local rabbinic bodies, he argues. If the Israeli proposals are implemented, “then the sort of trust that is necessary is seriously undermined”.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner, convenor of the Londonbased European Masorti Bet Din, takes a similar view. “Changes to the immigration procedures in Israel frequently come down to the ultra-Orthodox authorities wishing to assert their power over Jews abroad,” he said. “As they show little understanding of Jewish life in the diaspora, the bureaucratic solutions they propose are rarely appropriate. They undermine the rabbis and religious courts working in diaspora communities. The standards of the European Masorti Bet Din exceed anything being suggested at this moment. However, the regulations give an office worker in Jerusalem, who doesn’t know the details of a case the power to overturn a decision of trained rabbis who have known a candidate for years. This cannot be right.”
He added: “I know many cases of injustices. One case involved a girl from Eastern Europe, not halachically Jewish but with significant Jewish heritage, who was desperate to reclaim her Jewish past. As there was no Jewish life locally, she left her home and went to a Jewish boarding school abroad, where she lived a traditional Jewish life and studied Jewish studies in depth for four years before approaching a Bet Din.
“By the time she reached the Bet Din, she had studied longer, had a better understanding, and greater level of Jewish observance than most. Yet, when she eventually applied to immigrate to Israel, she was rejected on the grounds that her conversion had been too short.”
For Rabbi Farber, the Interior Ministry’s criteria would ironically mean that “Ruth [the biblical heroine] would not have been able to make aliyah”.