Over half of Israelis think Jewish conversion should be easier, poll finds

Almost 40 percent of Israelis would however accept a non-Jew as the spouse of their children.

A DEMONSTRATION IN Jerusalem last year against legislation that would have strengthened the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion in Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A DEMONSTRATION IN Jerusalem last year against legislation that would have strengthened the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over conversion in Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
More than half of Israelis believe that conversion to Judaism in Israel should be easier, while almost 40% would accept a non-Jew as the spouse of their children, a new poll has found.
The study was conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute ahead of the Shavuot holiday, which is traditionally associated with conversion since the Book of Ruth – the story of the famous biblical convert who was the grandmother of King David – is read in synagogue over the holiday.
The study assessed Israeli attitudes to the sensitive issue of conversion, which has become ever more pressing as the number of Israeli citizens descended from Jews but who are not Jewish according to Jewish law continues to rise.
The poll of 586 men and women – with a margin of error of 3.7% – asked whether conversion should be performed more leniently (as far as possible within Jewish law) in order to enable more converts to join the Jewish people, or more strictly.
Some 52% said conversion should be more lenient compared with 35% who said more strictly, and another 13% who said they did not know.
However, it was secular and traditional non-religious Israelis who supported greater leniency in conversion to a large extent, while the overwhelming majority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis (95%) and the large majority of religious Israelis (59%) supported being stricter in conversion policy.
The state conversion authority, which is overseen by the chief rabbis of Israel, has frequently been criticized – including by the state comptroller – for its high drop-out rate, inefficiency, and an unwelcoming attitude for conversion candidates.
There are currently over 400,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union or children of such immigrants who are descended from Jews but not Jewish according to Jewish law, with this figure projected to grow to 500,000 in another 12 years.
The growth of this community has generated concern – specifically among the moderate branch of the National-Religious movement – that intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in Israel will increase significantly in the coming years and decades.
But large numbers of Israelis are apparently unconcerned should their children marry someone who is not Jewish according to Jewish law, despite the traditional Jewish cultural taboo of such marriages.
According to the IDI poll, 39% of Jewish Israelis surveyed said they were sure that they would accept a non-Jewish spouse for their son or daughter.
Some 54% said nevertheless that they think they would not – or are sure they would not – accept a non-Jewish spouse for their children.
Jewish Israelis were far more likely to accept a non-Jew as a neighbor, with 86% saying they think they would – or are sure they would – accept such a neighbor, while some 10% said they would likely not accept a non-Jew as a neighbor.
The study, conducted between May 20 and 22, also found widespread support for Jewish conversion being run by the state as it largely is today, with 32% expressing support for the current system and 36% supporting a new state conversion authority.
Just 17% supported the right of independent conversion courts to conduct conversions that would be recognized by the state. Such courts already exist and function, and have been established by both the ultra-Orthodox and National-Religious communities, as well as the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform denominations in Israel.
“Some 400,000 Israelis living among us are not defined as Jewish according to Jewish law, despite the fact that they are an integral part of Israeli society, serve in the army, share the burden and are part of the Jewish-Israeli mosaic,” said Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the IDI’s Center for Religion, Nation and State.