A Jewish-American basketball player has seen his desire to remain in Israel stymied by bureaucracy. Like many other foreigners who want to become citizens of the State of Israel and members of its Jewish community, Jared Armstrong has come up against hurdles.
This is not the way Israel is meant to be. As a Jewish and democratic state, Israel is supposed to welcome Jews from all over the world. That also means providing citizenship under the Law of Return and under other considerations for people who are related to Jews or have converted.
Armstrong, a 24-year old basketball player, slammed the government this week for failing to give him citizenship despite promising to do so. According to a report by The Jerusalem Post’s Jewish world analyst Zvika Klein, Armstrong was told by one of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s senior advisers that citizenship would be given within a matter of weeks. That was over two months ago and he is still waiting.
Even though he was raised as a Jew in a Jewish community in the US, his conversion has come under question. He grew up as a Jewish African-American in Philadelphia, played basketball professionally, and after visiting Israel on a Birthright trip, decided to immigrate to Israel. The Interior Ministry, however, decided that even though he went through a Conservative conversion, he was not eligible to make aliyah.
“I was born a Jew,” Armstrong explained. “I grew up an observant Jew. We kept Shabbat and the High Holy Days. I was not allowed to play sports on Saturday. Instead, you would find me in shul.”
So why is he facing hurdles, and why have so many others over the years faced similar struggles? It is worth noting that this too often affects Jews from minority communities or mixed families. In other words, it appears that people who come from the West and “look Jewish” according to stereotypes have an easier time making aliyah. Those who are African-American or have other complex backgrounds seem to face greater obstacles and bureaucracy.
This is not just a question of the Law of Return or recognizing non-Orthodox conversions; it runs to the heart of what this country is supposed to be about.
For too long, the Chief Rabbinate has played politics with conversions. They think they can freeze conversions at a whim. This is not a Jewish value. Nowhere in Talmud or Torah do we find discussions about a “chief rabbinate” that has the authority to play with people’s lives the way Rabbis Lau and Yosef do on a regular basis.
Judaism might be a religion based on rules, but why do those rules need to be dictated by the ultra-Orthodox, an important group in the country but a minority? How often have we read headlines about the rabbinate rejecting a conversion from abroad, including Orthodox conversions? These are anachronistic decisions that place too much authority in the hands of an institution that has an agenda to keep Judaism closed instead of open to the world.
When the law comes up against issues of compassion for those who are members of the Jewish community and want to be citizens, we should find flexibility. The case of Armstrong is an example. While Armstrong’s father is not Jewish, his mother went through a conversion in the US. Her son sought to make aliyah from Philadelphia and applied through the Jewish Agency. He has told the media that he underwent a full conversion but says he has faced accusations since then about his motives.
We are supposed to welcome converts and not cast aspersions on them. Israel should welcome those like Armstrong as part of our historic tradition and because our state is a refuge.
Throughout history, the message of the Jewish community has been one of welcoming the stranger and aiding people in time of need. Our state needs to be more flexible in its approach. Too often people are kept waiting for years and are forced to go through arduous conversion processes. They desperately want to contribute and yet we are turning them away. That is not the Jewish way.