The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill Sunday that, if
ratified by the Knesset, is supposed to make it easier to convert to Judaism for
over 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.
legislation, sponsored by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), would allow any chief rabbi
of a city or of a regional council to establish a conversion court. Stern and
others, who see conversion as a solution to the threat of intermarriage between
Jews and non-Jews in Israel, hope that by creating more conversion courts and
widening the group of rabbis who perform conversions, more non-Jewish immigrants
from the FSU will opt to convert and fewer Jewish Israelis will end up marrying
While Stern’s bill has the best of intentions, it is highly
unlikely that the legislation will succeed in attaining its goals.
the ministerial committee, at the request of deputy minister of religious
services Eli Ben-Dahan, passed the bill on condition that it would receive the
backing of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau and Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yizhak
Yosef. And this is far from certain.
More fundamentally, even if the bill
is passed as is, it will not result in a significant increase in the number of
converts to Judaism.
Already, rabbis - particularly of the religious
Zionist variety - have gone to great lengths to make the conversion process as
welcoming and streamlined as possible.
Unfortunately, and perhaps
understandably, the vast majority of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU show
little interest in converting.
And though Stern and others claim to the
contrary, immigrants’ lack of interest in conversion is not due primarily to a
failure on the part of certain streams within Orthodoxy to make the conversion
process as user-friendly as possible.
Back in the 1990s the Neeman
Commission led to the creation of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies, headed
by Prof. Benjamin Ish-Shalom and the State Conversion Authority, which was
headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman.
In 2002, the Nativ program was created to
provide interested non-Jewish soldiers with Jewish education and preparation for
conversion and special conversion courts were established within the IDF. And
Stern, as head of the IDFs personnel division, was instrumental in supporting
Nativ and the special conversion courts.
Yet, results have consistently
been disappointing. Only around 2,000 non-Jewish immigrants a year have chosen
to convert, both in the IDF and in the State Conversion Authority combined. If
anything, the numbers have been falling in recent years.
The simple fact
is that most non-Jewish immigrants see no reason to convert to Judaism. Coming
from an agnostic background, these immigrants integrate very easily into secular
Israeli society. They learn Hebrew, celebrate the Jewish holidays like their
secular Israeli neighbors and serve in the army – that ultimate Israeli act of
And when it comes time to marry, these non-Jewish immigrants
and their Jewish Israeli spouses simply take a short trip to Cypress or some
other destination abroad, to legalize their love.
Admittedly, the debate
over conversions arouses strong emotions touching as it does on questions of
identity – not just for individuals but on a national level. Israel defines
itself as the homeland of the Jewish people. Maintaining a Jewish majority is
central to ensuring Israel’s Jewishness.
But who precisely should be
included in that “Jewish” majority is a matter of dispute.
Zionism has tended to emphasize the national aspects of Jewish peoplehood while
downplaying or relegating to the Orthodox establishment control over the
religious aspects of Israeli identity. As a result, it makes little sense for
the secular Jewish Israeli majority to expect non-Jewish immigrants to convert
to Judaism – particularly an Orthodox version of Judaism no matter how welcoming
and user-friendly – as a condition for being considered fully integrated into
While many, perhaps most, Jewish Israelis would probably
feel more comfortable marrying another Jew, many, perhaps most, are also willing
to marry a non-Jewish immigrant, or the descendant of one, who served in the
IDF, speaks fluent Hebrew, is well-versed in Israeli culture and is in all ways
– except by an irrelevant Halachic definition – like any other
No amount of tinkering with the conversion process will change
this simple fact.