A young African girl in Israel 370 (R).
(photo credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters)
Former justice minister Daniel Friedmann raised on Sunday the specter of a
massive wave of African migrants being able to get Israeli citizenship by
converting to Judaism, saying the state has “let go of the keys” to regulating
Friedmann cited the Law of Return as making conversion
to Judaism one way to gain citizenship, and said it does not precisely define
the conversion process, though the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical bodies abroad
have generally had significant influence on the issue.
His comments were
made at a conference on “Immigration and the Future of the Nation State” being
hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on Sunday and
Friedmann’s comments appeared to be a concern he was raising
following Israel’s success in significantly stemming the stream of migrants
illegally crossing Israel’s borders by building a wall on the Egyptian border
and detention centers for new arriving migrants. He was justice minister from
2007 to 2009.
Although Friedmann did not say that the conversion concern
was beyond theoretical or immediately concrete, the suggestion drew surprise and
harsh questioning from the other academics at the conference.
University’s Prof. Shulamit Volkov was the first to jump in, asking if
there was any such major development of converting African migrants in
“Is there a real problem? Why is conversion a real issue” for
migrants, she asked.
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Friedmann appeared to concede that mass conversion
of African migrants in Israel was unlikely, but responded that “it is easy to
convert outside” Israel.
Next, Prof. Ruud Koopmans of Berlin asked
Friedmann, “Why would they [the African migrants] want to give up their
religion?” Koopmans acknowledged that some migrants leave for “purely economic
reasons,” but asked, for those who “leave the country to maintain their religion
– why would they convert?” Friedmann said, “I don’t know why. But certainly they
are desperate,” noting that migrants come to Israel despite “torture, risks to
their lives, rape. I don’t think they have been presented with the
Several participants chimed in, saying that even if this
scenario ever became “realistic, the law would be immediately changed,” with one
participant saying that this was an “absurd scenario.”
Several talks at
the conference focused on other nations’ disparate approaches to the global
phenomenon of large numbers of migrants coming to their shores.
a lively debate on whether a multicultural and lenient approach to immigration
and absorption had positive or negative effects, or whether results were simply
different in different countries.
Another debate occurred regarding
whether Muslim immigrants as a group created larger social problems because of
what was referred to as their religious and other unique demands.
participants believed there was a unique issue with Muslim migrants, whereas
others said the issue was that the number of Muslim migrants was larger than
other groups and that if there was a similar large number of other groups, the
same bigger issues and cultural clashes could arise.
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