(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Members of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee slammed the Interior Ministry on Wednesday for ignoring a High Court ruling that recognizes "pop-over" conversions (giyur kvitza).
"The Interior Ministry has been dragging its feet for over two years," said MK Michael Nudelman, the panel's chairman, "adding insult to injury for dozens of converts who have already suffered enough and who deserve to be treated with more compassion."
In February 2005, the High Court of Justice ruled that those who converted to Judaism abroad were entitled to immediate and automatic citizenship (assuming they had no criminal record).
More than two years later, the Interior Ministry continues to ignore the ruling and still demands that all new converts remain in the Jewish community where they converted for at least a year.
The ministry does this to ensure that the convert is sincere, but the High Court already ruled this was unreasonably stringent. Orthodox Jewish law does not require that a new convert live in a particular community for a year.
The Interior Ministry said, "In the coming days we will draft clear criteria that will be in complete accord with the High Court ruling. In the meantime, none of the converts have been asked to leave Israel. Each is given either a temporary working permit or a temporary citizenship permit."
The ministry representative as well as an aide to Interior Minister Roni Bar-On (Kadima) said the delay in implementing the court decision was a result of bureaucratic ping pong between the Interior and Justice ministries that had been going on for "a long time."
There are no more than a few dozen "pop-over conversions" a year, performed by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.
Sometimes the prospective convert completes the required course of studies in Israel and then "pops over" to a rabbinic court abroad to be interviewed, undergo a circumcision and immerse in a mikve ritual bath. Then the convert returns to Israel to have his conversion approved and, in theory, to receive full citizenship.
In other cases, the convert studies in the Diaspora community, where he then "pops over" to a rabbinic court in a neighboring community for the conversion. Then the convert immigrates to Israel.
However, once in Israel the convert inevitably faces difficulties receiving full citizenship. Instead, he is given some form of temporary status. In some cases, the convert's status is identical to a foreign worker's. He is not entitled to state insurance or medical services.
Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM: the Jewish Information Center, which helps people navigate Israel's religious affairs bureaucracy, presented the Knesset committee with five different cases of "pop-over" converts who were not recognized by the Interior Ministry. All of them had undergone Orthodox conversions.
"It is an absurdity: Clerks in the Interior Ministry are disputing what Orthodox rabbis have already said is 100 percent kosher," said Farber, who is Orthodox himself.
"These clerks scoff not only at the Supreme Court, but at a commandment mentioned 36 times in the Torah - 'Love the converts, for you too were strangers in a foreign land.'
"These people come from the most vulnerable segment of the Jewish population. They have no one to protect them," Farber said.
MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) was pleased with the Interior Ministry's stringent approach to granting new converts citizenship.
"In most Western countries, one must go through hell and quite a few years of naturalization before receiving citizenship," he said. "But in Israel, there's a shortcut. All you have to do is show up and say, 'I am a Jew,' and you get citizenship immediately.
"I am in favor of removing bureaucratic obstacles, but the conversion has to be done in accordance with Jewish law. Otherwise the convert is not Jewish."
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, associate director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement's legal arm, said it was "scandalous" that the Interior Ministry continued to ignore an explicit High Court decision.
"It is totally legitimate for the Interior Ministry to want to put in place procedural criteria," said Kariv, "though two years and four months is an awfully long time to do so.
"But what is scandalous is that in the meantime, until these criteria are put in place, the Interior Ministry is obligated to give these converts citizenship. Refusing to do so shows contempt for the law."