AJC Analysis: Israeli Policy on Diaspora Jewish Converts

Once again, people not born Jewish who decide to link their fate to the Jewish people are discovering that the representatives of the state of the Jews are not their allies, but rather mistrustful inquisitors, suspicious of their decision.

This time it is the Interior Ministry, which recently circulated instructions requiring its clerks to apply administrative Israeli conversion standards to those who converted abroad. Among those regulations: 350 hours of instruction, nine months of religious communal participation before conversion, and nine more months after. Without fulfilling these specific requirements a convert from abroad cannot be recognized as Jewish for purposes of immigration to the State of Israel.

These are arbitrary standards determined by secular bureaucrats. We may very well ask what business the clerks who give out visas have in examining religious conversion, much less setting detailed standards. Incredibly, these were simply copied from curricula for Israeli governmental conversion courses. No effort was made to research what might constitute sufficient study in the living conditions of Diaspora communities. The logic behind the proposed solution is that foreign rabbinical courts will adjust their conversion programs—previously viewed as perfectly legitimate—to meet these Interior Ministry rules. Yet, nothing has been done to get the foreign rabbis on board.

Unlike most previous attempts to regulate overseas conversions, this is not specifically directed against non-Orthodox converts. It affects overseas converts in general, and American Orthodox rabbis have expressed consternation over the arbitrary standards now being set by a secular government ministry.

The Ministry’s secular bureaucracy is responding to what it perceives as an urgent problem, preventing hordes of uninvited foreign workers gaining citizenship through fictitious conversion at a time of worldwide unemployment.

But the problem may well be imaginary. Lawyers representing overseas converts tell me that there is no research that demonstrates a problem; conversion fraud abroad does not seem to be anything but a minor annoyance, if it is even that. We witness a disconcerting example of bureaucratic overreach surfacing a serious constitutional problem and a stark symptom of the dysfunctions of Israel-Diaspora relations.

The new system, while approved by the current interior minister, from the Orthodox Shas party, was developed under the previous minister, a secular politician from Kadima. Thus, the unilateral push to force certain practices on the Diaspora is not identified with a specific political party, but appears to flow from the way religion-state relations in Israel are structured.

It would be easy for American Jews to see this as just an Israeli dysfunction, but American Jewry shares the blame. We have not communicated our sharp disapproval in effective ways, perhaps because we have never addressed head-on the catastrophic effects of the establishment of religion. Astonishingly, American Jews, who are among the strongest advocates of separation of church and state in the U.S., seeing it as one of the secrets of American Jewish success, have never confronted Israel about it.

When a democratic state has an established church, in this case a Jewish "church," precisely in the sense America's Founders refused to countenance, the church may feel it got the better of the bargain, as tax revenues fill its coffers. But, as we see in this case, once the state controls, secular bureaucrats think nothing of setting standards even for the profoundly religious activity of conversion.

The new crisis illustrates the destructive constitutional paradox that while Orthodoxy is ensconced as "official Judaism" in Israel, it has become relegated to just another state service, with all the moral standing of, say, the postal authority, to be bureaucratized at will by state functionaries.

For American Jewry, upon whom judgment is being passed by the conversion initiative, it may be time to begin a pointed dialogue with Israeli society about the wisdom of separating church and state, helping to conceive of a Jewish democratic state that protects the Jewish religion from being desecrated by the whims of politicians and government bureaucrats.

It is sad that some Israeli bureaucrats did not consult Diaspora communities before trying to ram conversion standards down their throats. The Diaspora is populated for the most part by Jews who wish Israel well and seek to work with her when challenges arise. Israel must come to understand that it cannot make decisions for these communities thoughtlessly and unilaterally.

Worse, Israeli Judaism has suffered as a spiritual endeavor because it lacks the wisdom which American Jews possess about the danger of politicized religion. In disestablishment, Israeli Judaism may find itself renewed and empowered to bring the light of Torah more effectively to Israeli society and to the world Jewish community.
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