The Israeli Rabbinate and the conversion crisis

Last Thursday, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate appointed a committee to investigate the validity of more than 4500 conversions performed in the IDF over the last decade. In addition, this committee has been authorized to clarify the status of more than 20,000 additional converts who have converted since the founding of the conversion authority in Israel. They are to present their initial findings in four months.

The appointment of this committee represents an enormous setback for converts in Israel, and highlights the increasing radicalization of the Israeli rabbinate. For the more than 6% of Israelis who came on aliya as “Jews” under the law of Return, but who aren’t halachically Jewish, a disaster is brewing.
This decision, which has undermined the confidence of converts in Israel and caused thousands of individuals in Israel to “think twice” before beginning the conversion process, was taken following a brief submitted to the Israeli Supreme Court by The Jewish Life Information Center (ITIM) in May. ITIM sued the Israeli rabbinate and four marriage registrars in Israel for refusing to certify the Jewishness of individuals who had undergone halachic conversions through the Chief rabbinate. In the context of the initial hearing in September, the Israeli attorney general’s office declared that from a procedural perspective, they had serious questions about how conversion were being performed in Israel.
In their decision, the Israeli Supreme court called upon the rabbinate to clarify their support of the conversions which they had overseen. Following that decision, the Knesset oversight committee made a similar request.
When the Israeli Chief Rabbi’s counsel met last Thursday, the Attorney General’s office made clear that from a procedural perspective the conversion were valid, and that legally anyone who converted was completely Jewish. However, they raised a question about the signators on the conversion certificates.
Had the Israeli chief rabbinate simply offered to amend the signatures – a purely technical matter – then converts would have been protected and assured. In fact, at least two members of the Chief Rabbi’s Council suggested that this be done.
But the fundamentalists carried the day, and this at the expense of those who have converted. A small pack of extremists on the council insisted that the entire issue of conversion be reopened. And thus the investigative committee was formed.
While I cannot speak of their motivations, I can say that those extremists understand the political valence of conversion and object to the entire religious significance of the IDF, and a fortiori, conversions performed therein.  But their ideologies have blinded them to the tens of thousands of individuals who have joined the Jewish people by choice, and now find the chief rabbinate pulling out the carpet from under them.
“One should love the convert,” is a touchstone of our tradition. As Jews, we should be sensitive and ever-conscious of the vulnerability of those who come from the outside. While the Israeli Chief Rabbis office has the formal capacity to project confidence, their actions of the last weeks have highlighted their ambivalence.
Only time will tell how much damage their indecision has cause, and if it is irreparable.  We can only hope for better times where rabbis have the determination to fight fundamentalism and promote a greater future for Israel.