(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Out of concern that Israel will be labeled a proselytizing nation, the Justice Ministry this week asked Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar to stop converting citizens of foreign countries. But Amar is proving reluctant to do so.
In a meeting on Sunday, attorney Harel Goldberg of the Consultation and Legislation Department in the Justice Ministry requested that Amar halt these conversions. Goldberg had sent a letter to Amar more than a month ago warning of the legal problems involved with the practice.
But an aide to Amar who deals with the conversions said that, together with the ministry, they still hoped to find a way to continue the practice.
Legal experts in the ministry and in the Attorney-General's Office have opposed drafting any regulations that would give a religious authority the power to convert citizens of foreign countries.
They argue that such legislation, unprecedented in other Western countries, would give the impression that Israel was actively encouraging the conversions of non-Israelis, even though the conversion candidates come of their own free will.
If the conversion is part of the naturalization process to become Israeli, then it is less problematic from a legal perspective. But Amar has presided over dozens of conversions of people who came here solely to be converted, and who then returned to their countries as Jews.
The case underlines the complexities created in Israel, where religion and citizenship are so closely related.
About five years ago Amar drafted a list of directives governing the way conversions are performed in Israel. At the behest of the Justice Ministry, these directives did not include rules regarding the conversion of foreign citizens who had no intention of becoming Israeli.
Nevertheless, Amar continued to perform these conversions at a rate of between 30 and 50 a year, with candidates coming from all over the world.
A senior administrator in the Conversion Authority who has been at odds with Amar for several years complained to the Justice Ministry that the directives did not grant Amar the power to perform these conversions.
The ministry issued a written request that Amar stop, but Amar's aides ignored the request. A few weeks ago, when a prospective convert from Hong Kong was scheduled to arrive for a conversion, the administrator complained again.
On Sunday, in the meeting with Goldberg, Amar was personally advised to stop.
Until now, candidates for conversion to Judaism who lived abroad in locations removed from recognized Orthodox rabbinical conversion courts had the option of coming to Israel to convert under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
Amar's supporters say getting involved in these conversions was seen as a way of preventing prospective Orthodox converts from availing themselves of a non-Orthodox conversion.
Also, by offering this option, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel took pressure off local rabbis. These rabbis are often subjected to the demands of rich and influential members of the community to perform conversions on prospective spouses who are not sincerely interested in embracing Judaism.
Instead of being forced to perform the conversion himself, the local rabbi could refer the candidate to the Chief Rabbinate. Every foreign candidate for conversion was expected to have a recommendation from the rabbi of the Diaspora community where he or she lived.
However, Amar, the supreme authority for conversions, vets the candidates, and in fact many candidates are rejected, sources close to Amar said.
The candidate was also expected to receive the recommendation of an observant adoptive family that could testify to the religious observance and commitment of the prospective convert.
Finally, the candidate was requested to stipulate that he or she would not ask for Israeli citizenship after the conversion for at least two years.
Under the Law of Return, converts to Judaism are entitled to automatic citizenship. However, Israeli immigration officials have traditionally been wary of the possibility that foreigners, especially from poorer countries, would use conversion as a means of obtaining quick Israeli citizenship, thus improving their socioeconomic situation.
From a religious point of view the stipulation also made sense. A conversion should not be performed for ulterior motives such as obtaining citizenship. Rather, the conversion should be performed solely out of religious conviction.
Sources close to the Conversion Authority who spoke to The Jerusalem Post off the record blamed the administrator who complained to the Justice Ministry for torpedoing these conversions.
In contrast, a source who supported the administrator's move argued that all conversions performed on non-Israeli citizens had to receive the permission of a Special Cases Committee in the Interior Ministry.
"People can use the conversion to receive Israeli citizenship, so the Interior Ministry should be involved in the decision, not just the chief rabbi," he said.
But a source who supports Amar said that out of about 160 conversions performed on foreigners over the past four years only three ended up requesting Israeli citizenship.
"By involving the Interior Ministry, you will increase bureaucracy and make it impossible for Diaspora Jews with no other option to convert to Orthodox Judaism here in Israel," this source said.
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