Interior Ministry gets tough on int'l Orthodox conversions

Ministry’s current conduct appears to make it far easier for Reform, Conservative converts to be recognized for purpose of aliya.

By JONAH MANDEL
February 11, 2011 06:19
Haredim walk on street

Haredim Walking Away 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

Is the Interior Ministry attempting to encourage non-Orthodox conversions for people planning on making aliya? Probably not, but the ministry’s current conduct appears to make it far easier for Reform and Conservative converts to be recognized for the purpose of immigrating and receiving Israeli citizenship.

A recent letter sent by the ministry to Rabbi Seth Farber, head of the ITIM organization, states that its authority on determining the validity of Orthodox conversions from abroad for the purpose of granting Israeli citizenship is the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. This means that if the rabbinate does not recognize the Orthodox conversion court, not only will the convert be deemed non-Jewish in Israel, he or she will also not be recognized by the state for citizenship.

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At the same time, while non-Orthodox conversions conducted in courts recognized by the Israeli leadership of the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements are not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate as valid Jewish conversions, the State of Israel sees these converts as Jewish and grants them citizenship. Thus, when Canada native Thomas Dolhan applied for aliya a short while ago, he was informed that his Orthodox conversion – conducted by a court composed of two rabbis from the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF) and one from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) – was not valid. This was confirmed in a response to Farber last month from the Interior Ministry, which stated that “according to the Chief Rabbinate, this is a conversion that is not recognized.”

In other words, the rabbinate’s religious rejection led the Interior Ministry to reject the conversion’s civilian validity as well, meaning that Dolhan would be ineligible for Israeli citizenship.

Both the RCA and the IRF are well-known Orthodox rabbinic organizations, but the Chief Rabbinate only accepts RCA conversions in 10 regional rabbinic courts across North America.

Since the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements in Israel are well attuned to their sister communities abroad, it is unlikely that Dolhan would have been rejected by the Interior Ministry had he converted in a non- Orthodox rabbinic court as legitimate and established as the Orthodox one in which he underwent his process.

The High Court of Justice determined in 2005 that a person who underwent a conversion in one of the “recognized streams” – i.e. Reform, Conservative or Orthodox – would be eligible for Israeli citizenship under certain stipulations.

At the same time, the court stated that it was the state’s right to determine criteria to ensure that the conversion process would not be exploited to receive Israeli citizenship.

The Interior Ministry, the body that bestows citizenship on immigrants, did not move to publish such criteria, and in 2007 ITIM sued the ministry over a case in which an Orthodox convert was mishandled. The parties eventually reached an agreement outside the court in that specific case.

In 2008, the ministry’s legal department issued a draft of “the conditions for granting an oleh status, based on a conversion conducted abroad.” This twopage document was not disseminated outside the ministry, and its first clause determines that conversions must be undertaken in communities “that are recognized by the agreed-upon local institutions” – meaning the local establishment, and not the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

In a response to The Jerusalem Post’s inquiry as to whether the Chief Rabbinate was its arbiter regarding Orthodoxy worldwide for purposes of citizenship, an Interior Ministry spokeswoman wrote on Thursday that Dolhan’s “conversion was examined by the Chief Rabbinate, which is in charge of Orthodox conversions.

A conversion conducted by a Reform rabbinic court is referred to the Reform Movement by the population registrar for their examination. The same applies to Conservative conversions.” She added, “We would like to note that the examination is about the authority of the rabbinic court or converting rabbi.”

Farber told the Post on Thursday that “the most sensitive area of Israel-Diaspora relations – the question of who is a Jew – is being decreed by clerks who have no knowledge of the general Jewish community and no sensitivity to the vulnerability of the converts.” Farber contended that “the Jewish State is neglecting the value of treating converts appropriately.”

“The rabbinate’s ultra-Orthodox values in terms of recognizing conversions in Israel are now being exported abroad,” he said.

“I am against fictitious conversions,” Farber stressed, “but in this case we are dealing with the rabbi of one of the largest Orthodox communities in North America” who was part of Dolhan’s threeman rabbinic court.

Farber recently approached two senior officials in the Chief Rabbinate to express his indignation over the problematic situation in which the Israeli rabbinate, which is not necessarily familiar with the Orthodox communities in the Diaspora, passes judgment not only on converts’ Judaism, but effectively on their Israeli citizenship.

“They took pride in the fact that they represent Orthodoxy in Israel and the world,” Farber recalled, “and said they saw it as their duty to filter the fictitious conversions in the world.”

Besides Dolhan’s case, another similar problem reached Farber last week. These examples are indicative of the problems that can arise with the Chief Rabbinate in control of approving conversions – and effectively deciding who can become Israeli.

“The big fear of Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem’s conversion bill was that once the Chief Rabbinate was granted the authority in conversions, they would begin to exercise it to reject conversions they didn’t deem valid, even Orthodox ones, not only from the religious point of view, but also as relating to civil rights and the right to make aliya,” Farber said.

The bill in question was vehemently opposed by the Diaspora communities and is currently not being debated in the Knesset.

“There is nobody speaking on behalf of moderate Orthodoxy. We will have to take this case to court if the Interior Ministry does not back down from its policy. There is nothing in the law that gives the ministry the authority it is exercising here,” Farber said.


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