Ruling on foreign converts not implemented
Religious rights groups criticize Interior Ministry for failure to draw up guidelines for approval of converts abroad.
New olim arrive in Israel. Photo: Elle Yahalom
Religious rights groups heavily criticized the Interior Ministry on Monday for its failure to draw up clear guidelines for the approval of converts who became Jewish abroad and subsequently apply to make aliya under the right of return.
In 2005, the High Court of Justice ordered the ministry and its Population, Immigration and Border Authority to produce clear criteria for accepting or rejecting the request to make aliya made by someone who converted abroad.
In response to questions from The Jerusalem Post, the Interior Ministry said on Monday that it was still utilizing draft criteria to evaluate foreign converts and that new criteria were still being negotiated between the government, the Jewish Agency and religious movements conducting conversions.
It is unclear if the draft criteria currently in use have been approved and if so, by whom. The Interior Ministry did not respond to questions regarding the approval of the draft criteria.
“It is completely undemocratic and antithetical to Jewish tradition to persecute converts in this way without due process,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, the director of the ITIM religious rights advocacy group and rabbi of an Orthodox community in Ra’anana.
“These draft criteria contravene the 2005 Supreme Court decision, and also impinge on the autonomy of Diaspora Jewish communities to determine their own standards of conversion.”
In January 2011, the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel decided to freeze petitions they made to the High Court of Justice to have conversions done under their auspices recognized by the state. In return, the government agreed to set up a framework for negotiations between the Interior Ministry, the Jewish Agency and the Conservative and Reform movements to produce a clear set of criteria by which to approve or deny the application for immigrant status by someone who converted outside of Israel.
To date, there has only been one meeting between the relevant parties, which took place at the beginning of 2011.
In a recent case, Lidiah Bikus from Moldova spent a year studying Orthodox Judaism in Bnei Brak. She requested to convert in Israel but her request was refused so she returned to the Ukraine and converted there through an Orthodox rabbi in Kiev. Her conversion was subsequently recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and the Rabbinical Court of Bnei Brak, directed by Rabbi Shmuel Karlitz.
Bikus then tried to make aliya from the Ukraine but encountered numerous bureaucratic hurdles from the Interior Ministry for over a year before they requested specific documents regarding her conversion and request for aliya.
The Interior Ministry said she has not yet provided the relevant documents, including signed statements from those she studied under while in Israel. One of the ministry’s main concerns is to prevent foreign workers from abusing the right of return, granted to Jews and converts alike.
Bikus worked as a caregiver in Bnei Brak from 2002 to 2008.
According to ITIM, which is assisting Bikus in her application, since she was not allowed to convert through the state conversion process, Bikus cannot produce the documents they are requesting, as her studies here were informal.
Chairman of the Knesset Committee for Aliya, Absorption and the Diaspora, MK Danny Danon (Likud) told the Post that he would evaluate Bikus’s case and, if necessary, hold a committee hearing to solve the wider problem.
“Any Jew who wants to make aliya should be allowed to do so,” he told the Post.
“The committee and the Knesset are working hard to reduce the bureaucratic obstacles that exist at the moment and the incident uncovered by The Jerusalem Post has to be examined.
“The State of Israel is the home of the Jewish people and needs to have the feel of a home so that Jews in the Diaspora are able to preserve their connection to it and to immigrate to Israel if they so wish.”
According to a 1988 Supreme Court decision, the criteria determining whether or not someone who converted abroad is eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return are that the community and rabbi through whom they converted must be confirmed by the state. In turn, the community and rabbi must confirm that they recognize the convert as a Jew and a community member in good standing.
For Conservative and Reform converts, the verification process is simplified by the centralized community bodies for those religious streams, which can easily confirm whether someone has converted through their offices.
The lack of a central umbrella body for Orthodox communities makes this verification much harder for Orthodox converts.
At present, Conservative and Reform converts from outside Israel face less obstacles than Orthodox converts because of this problem.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism, called the current situation “unacceptable.”
“The fact that the ministry admits that it is still using a draft is a disgrace and cannot be accepted,” he said.
“It is unbelievable that it has taken so many years to design a new policy for converts. The Interior Ministry is trying to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling and prefers this situation, in which there is no clear policy that can be easily challenged by converts whose applications for aliya are rejected.
“Instead of establishing a clear policy, it prefers to maintain an ambiguous situation, and once again the government is showing that converts from overseas are not truly welcome in Israel.”