Israel: Overhaul The Conversion Process


The leadership of organized Jewry, from the Jewish Federations of North America to the Jewish Agency for Israel, is expressing frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal — understandably — with the Netanyahu government for allowing a controversial conversion bill to go forward in the Knesset, even though it would alienate the vast majority of diaspora Jewry.

The bill proposed by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, many of whose constituents are Russian immigrants, is designed to make the conversion process more accessible to the approximately 350,000 former Russians who are citizens of Israel, many serving in the army, but who are not Jewish. That goal is admirable, and necessary, but the bill, which would allow city rabbis in Israel to perform conversions, gives full and final authority to the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Such legislation not only makes the great majority of world Jewry feel like second-class citizens, risking further distancing from Israel, but is largely ineffectual, since it would only have a practical impact on a relative handful of conversions.

Rotem visited the U.S. last spring and heard from a variety of Jewish leaders here, who warned that the legislation would be deeply harmful to the sense of Jewish unity and peoplehood. He assured them he would not go forward with such a bill. What’s more, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement several months ago, asserting that “any legislative arrangement [on conversion] will have to ensure the unity of the entire Jewish people.”

But he did not prevent the Rotem bill from passing a Knesset committee — a first step toward legislation — this week, giving the impression that the prime minister is more concerned about domestic politics than Jewish peoplehood. (Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is a key party in the government coalition.)

The controversy over religious identity in Israel, from Who is a Jew to conversion, is a perennial lightning rod that heats up every few years. Squaring the circle by maintaining halachic tradition without offending 85 percent of world Jewry has proven elusive. But a path carved by Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Shas member of Knesset and religious authority, could be significant. He has published a scholarly book of rabbinic responsa with a more welcoming attitude toward potential converts. And he has written that the willingness of soldiers from Russian immigrant families to risk their lives to defend the Jewish state proves their sincere intention to be part of the Jewish people. For this he has been criticized sharply from charedi colleagues and called heroic by supporters searching for halachic flexibility toward potential converts.

What is required is an overhaul of the current ineffective system in Israel and strong political support for an approach like that of Rabbi Amsalem, one that could lead to welcoming tens of thousands of Russian immigrants and their Israeli-born children into the Jewish people. It requires goodwill, and placing Jewish unity over domestic politics. That sounds all too naïve at the moment, but until it happens, the divisions among us will only fester and grow, and potentially weaken diaspora support for the State of Israel.