Some 300,000-350,000 non-Jewish immigrants live in Israel today, mostly people who emigrated from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return. They are all citizens, most of them well integrated in society. Many serve in combat units in the IDF. Under the law and the famous status quo arrangement, the Orthodox establishment monopolizes the conversion process. Non-Jewish immigrants can die for the country, but cannot marry a Jewish citizen in Israel.
Two months ago an urgent meeting took place in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset. Its chairman, MK Menahem Ben-Sasson, convened the meeting following a preposterous case that took place in the rabbinic court of Ashdod. At the end of a simple divorce case, the court retroactively revoked the wife's conversion - which took place 15 years earlier - declaring her marriage null and void and her children gentiles. The decision not only canceled the woman's conversion, but also discredited some 15,000 conversions preformed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, former head of the State Conversion Authority.
This meeting at the Knesset, as many before in the Immigration Absorption Committee, brought to light the catastrophic state of the country's conversion authorities, where infighting and bickering between the omnipotent rabbinical courts and the powerless State Conversion Authority are the norm. Exposed too was the precarious situation of those who seek to convert and face draconian measures.
Slowly but surely a sub-society is being formed: a society of citizens with Jewish ancestry who serve in the army and pay taxes, but are prevented from living as citizens with full rights. Currently only 2,000 people convert every year: only 30 percent of the soldiers and 55% of the civilians who begin the process end up being converted. Clearly, this is a drop in the ocean. In fact, there are more non-Jewish children born to these families every year than there are converts.
Five years ago prime minister Ariel Sharon attempted to address this problem by establishing the State Conversion Authority in the Prime Minister's Office. Unfortunately, the new body was ineffective in substantially increasing the number of conversions, mainly due to the unwelcoming attitude of the rabbinic courts, as well as the rigid and protracted conversion process. A survey conducted by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption found that 76% of non-Jewish immigrants said that the greatest deterrent to beginning the conversion process was the uncertainty that they will eventually be recognized as Jews. Most respondents commented that an easier and more welcoming process would encourage them to convert.
RECENTLY, A committee headed by Erez Halfon, director-general of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, completed its work and compiled a plan to reform the conversion services. The Halfon Committee recommended the establishment of a conversion bureau in the Prime Minister's Office which would coordinate the various branches of the conversion process: special conversion courts, the various educational institutions and the information policy. However, its recommendations were watered down by the Prime Minister's Office. The only palpable change seems to be the transferring of budgets from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption to the Prime Minister's Office, and the addition of some 10 rabbis to the conversion courts. Even the idea to recruit dozens of volunteer rabbis to expedite the conversions was knocked down. The solutions offered by the Prime Minister's Office are too little too late.
We must not forget that decisions taken here with regard to the conversion process have a profound affect on converts and Jews in the Diaspora. Many non-Jews are reluctant to convert in rabbinical courts which may eventually not be recognized by Israel, and many courts are reluctant to carry out conversions at all. This situation has, of course, an adverse affect on the view of many Jewish communities toward Israel, communities that often contain many converts.
Failure to solve this issue immediately means a long-term disaster for the Jewish state. The damage caused to our social cohesion and the absorption of immigrants is immense.
What is required today is a paradigm shift in thinking toward the entire issue of conversions. The monopoly in conversions given to the Orthodox should not be unconditional - it can only continue if the treatment of those wishing to convert is radically changed. Conversions must be facilitated both by a more welcoming rabbinical system and by the removal of bureaucratic barriers. Let us not forget - the people in question have already decided to join the Jewish nation by immigrating to this country. Their claim - as simple and honest as that of our matriarch Ruth, who declared "Your people is my people and your God, my God" - should be taken seriously.
The writer is a Labor MK.