New citizenship rules hard on converts

Exclusive: Interior Ministry's proposed criteria would disqualify those who converted to Judaism abroad.

conversion class 248.88 (photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
conversion class 248.88
(photo credit: Hilary Leila Krieger [file])
The Interior Ministry has prepared a preliminary draft of citizenship criteria that would disqualify some converts to Judaism - Orthodox, Conservative and Reform - from automatically qualifying under the Law of Return. The draft was distributed on Monday night to collect feedback from organizations such as the Jewish Agency, the Reform Movement and the Human Rights Association, which work with converts. The document was obtained by The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. According to the proposed rules, the ministry would not automatically grant citizenship to converts whose conversions took place abroad, whether in Orthodox, Conservative or Reform ceremonies. Rather, the convert would be asked to fulfill requirements that include: a minimum of nine months in a preparatory course in Judaism; proof of participation in the activities of a Jewish community abroad for at least nine months after conversion; and residing in the Jewish community that performs the conversion for at least three months prior to conversion. In addition, converts who converted abroad and apply for Israeli citizenship would face rejection for a number of reasons: The convert applied previously, before conversion, for Israeli citizenship and was rejected; the convert stayed in Israel illegally for a period of at least six months; the convert has relatives in Israel [who he or she wishes to join]; and the convert applied for citizenship immediately after converting and family members, who did not convert, want to come too. "The purpose of these criteria," write the Interior Ministry legal advisers who authored the draft, "is to prevent exploitation of the conversion process to obtain Israeli citizenship. The person requesting citizenship must prove an honest, serious intention to join the Jewish people and to accept the Jewish religion. He or she must prove the conversion is not just for the purpose of receiving citizenship." Orthodox Rabbi Shaul Farber, head of ITIM, an organization that helps people navigate Israel's religious affairs bureaucracy, said that the draft proposal went against the basic tenets of Jewish tradition. "Judaism has always demanded special sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of converts," said Farber. "These draconian measures written in the draft seems to point to xenophobia and intransigence among Interior Ministry officials." Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a senior member of Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform Movement's legal arm, said there were two main problems with the draft. "First, the Interior Ministry has no right to be involved in determining the length of time it is necessary to prepare for a conversion. There is nothing in the law, neither Jewish nor civil, stating a minimum period of time. "Second, it is unfair to disqualify a convert from citizenship simply because a previous request for citizenship was rejected or because he or she has relatives in Israel. "But we are still looking over the suggestions. And we also understand the Interior Ministry's interest in protecting Israel's borders from unwanted immigration." Israeli citizenship, unlike the citizenship of other Western countries, is intimately linked with religion. Under the Law of Return, only those who are Jews according to Orthodox criteria, or those who are related to a Jew (spouse, child, grandchild) are eligible for citizenship. In addition, individuals who have converted to Judaism outside Israel - whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform - are also eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. As a result of this link between religion and citizenship, ostensibly secular institutions such as the Interior Ministry end up interfering in issues that are inherently religious, such as conversion. However, the ministry's jurisdiction in religious matters has been limited by the Supreme Court. On March 31, 2005, the High Court of Justice struck down a ministry regulation according to which foreign converts had to live in the community where they converted for at least a year before making aliya. This ruling was based on the reasoning that the ministry had no right to set criteria defining a religious act such as conversion. Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry's legal department once again seems to be trying to determine what constitutes a legitimate, authentic conversion. In fact, Israel's official authority on conversions - Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar - was not even consulted before the criteria were drafted, according to Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, an aide to Amar who is the senior authority on recognizing conversions for the purpose of marriage. For more than two years, since the High Court ruling, the Interior Ministry has been trying to put together citizenship criteria for converts. Without clear rules, dozens of converts have been forced to wait for many months to immigrate. Those who arrive in Israel remain without rights and benefits. Every year about three dozen converts who converted abroad request to make aliya, according to Jewish Agency sources who spoke with the Post last year. In the past, the Post has reported that the Interior Ministry continued to demand that people who converted abroad and ask to make aliya live in the community where they converted for at least a year before making aliya, in total disregard of the High Court decision.