Just say no


I’ve been working for weeks on a blog post to put all the conversion hysteria in the Jewish world into some kind of context. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to work the latest news from Israel into the whole complicated, world-wide, cross-denominational mess. I realized it’s taking too long and I just need to tell you this:

There’s a bill before the Knesset in Israel to change the Law of Return to bar converts from being integrated into Israeli society as Jews and we have to act now.

At the moment, any convert, no matter who has converted him or her, can make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) under the Law of Return–even people whom the Chief Rabbinate would deny the right to marry a Jew. Israeli law also dodges the problem of excluding people who are Jewish by patrilineal descent through a 1970 amendment that allows relatives of Jews to come on the same basis as Jews.

Now the right-wing secular party Yisrael Beiteinu has put forward a new bill to exclude converts to Judaism from the Law of Return–catering to the Chief Rabbinate, whose officials have declared hundreds of Orthodox conversions performed in the State of Israel invalid. (We’re not even talking about Reform or Conservative conversions done in the US or elsewhere.)

If you think this is pushing Israel toward theocracy, you are dead wrong. At least, if it is a theocracy, it’s not a Jewish one, because declaring converts to have a different status is not based on Judaism. Jewish religion says that a Jew is a Jew and there’s no distinction between converts and people who are born Jewish. This is a scary piece of legislation designed to cut off the rest of the Jewish people from the State of Israel. On JewsByChoice.Org (a fantastic web resource that seems to be back in business!) I found this plea from the Conservative movement to act immediately on the Knesset bill. The Reform movement, through its Zionist organization Arza, is also urging action. 

This is not the solution to the problems of interfaith families in Israel, as Yisrael Beiteinu seems to believe. Jewishness is not a racial category and we can’t resolve our communal differences over how to do conversion by taking from converts one of the major tokens of belonging to the Jewish people. The bizarre and anti-halachic campaign of the Chief Rabbinate to undermine conversions in Israel has had widespread impact here in the Diaspora. It’s time to tell them no.

3 thoughts on “Just say no”

  • I’m not 100% sure about motivations, but here’s what I think based on my reading. (For example, this article.) Yisrael Beitenu represents mainly Russian Jews in Israel. A lot of their families are intermarried. They identify as Jews but the Israeli Rabbinate doesn’t agree–they are Jewish by paternal descent, and like that. Yisrael Beitenu is trying to cut a deal with the Rabbinate to make it easier for those families to deal with their status–both persuading religious parties in the Knesset to stop blocking civil marriage, and by making conversions possible at local rabbinical councils. But, civil marriage will only be available to anyone who isn’t halachically Jewish but also doesn’t identify with another religious community–the rest of Israelis will have to marry within their religious community. So…yeah, it’s a mess, and not the solution they want. 

  • What is motivating these decisions? That’s what I’d like to understand. Is it because Israel is so small, they want to limit immigration? Or what? I don’t get it.

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