Conversion in Israel: Why is it such a mess?

Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a former MK, who also presided as chief rabbi of Romania, says there were relatively few conversion cases in Israel until 1967.

Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a former MK who also presided as chief rabbi of Romania. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a former MK who also presided as chief rabbi of Romania.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Stories about conversion are ever present, from blacklists of Diaspora rabbis to attempts by haredi (ultra- Orthodox) parties to increase their monopoly over Orthodox conversion in Israel. Yet the subject of conversion in Israel is nothing new, dating as far back as the 1920s.
Throughout much of Jewish history, the laws of conversion were infrequently applied, as the number of people who wanted to convert to Judaism was relatively small. However, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 brought to its shores thousands of immigrants, some of whom had non-Jewish spouses.
Others were the product of a relationship between a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father, making them not Jewish according to Jewish law. How would the new state define the meaning of being a Jew, both socially and religiously?
The Law of Return, which was passed in 1950, states that “Every Jew has the right to come to this country as an oleh [immigrant].” However, the law left the definition of Jew deliberately vague and the number of people affected at the time was relatively small.
According to Dr. Netanel Fisher, a lecturer at Sha’arei Mishpat College and a researcher at the Open University and Kohelet Policy Forum who specializes in religion and politics, “The whole story actually starts in the 1920s... when the Jewish Agency began its official policy of bringing Jews to Israel. The agency provided certificates, and had to decide who was getting the certificates.” It was up to the Jewish Agency to determine who was “Jewish enough.”
“The religious people wanted to push toward a more religious definition,” says Fisher, “but the Jewish Agency decided not to accept that definition. They thought that a definition of this type would be considered racist, and would be improper since they felt obligated to allow for freedom of religion.”
Furthermore, explains Fisher, there were Zionist leaders of the time such as Max Nordau (1849-1923), co-founder of the World Zionist Organization, whose wife was not Jewish. If the Jewish Agency based its definition on religion, then some of the Zionist leaders themselves might be excluded.
Fisher says that since the working assumption was that the majority of people who were coming were Jewish, they would not carefully check most people’s credentials. If there were someone who had a Jewish relative, they would assume that the person was Jewish and wouldn’t investigate further.
How many non-Jews came to Israel during this period and were accepted as Jews? According to Fisher “there were hundreds and perhaps thousands,” until the 1960s.
Prof. Chaim Waxman, chairman of the behavioral sciences department at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, traces this issue to events that took place during 1956 and 1957. “During that period,” says Waxman, “more than 45,000 Jews from Poland arrived in Israel. Among those who immigrated to Israel, it was estimated that 10% were not Jewish according to Jewish law.”
While there was no question about their being admitted to Israel, it was unclear how they would be registered on their ID cards. Then interior minister Yisrael Bar-Yehuda directed that anyone who declared themselves as Jews would be registered as such. In addition, then prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared that the listing of nationality of children of mixed couples should be up to the parents. Ultimately, this led to a coalition crisis in 1958 and the National Religious Party resigned from the government in protest.
Ben-Gurion, explains Fisher, was opposed to state-sponsored conversion. “Ben-Gurion said, ‘We are a democratic state, and a democratic state doesn’t intervene in a citizen’s religious affiliation. We came here to establish secular Judaism, which is not based on Jewish law, but based on affiliation, identification and origin.’”
Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion wanted to keep the religious ministers in his coalition, and halted the implementation of Bar-Yehuda’s ruling. In an effort to reach a consensus on the definition of Jewish identity, he appointed a committee to advise him.
The committee contacted 50 “sages of Israel” in the words of Ben-Gurion’s letter – rabbis and intellectuals – and solicited their opinions. Most of the respondents replied that the traditional definition of a Jew – the child of a Jewish mother – should stand.
The law remained as it was, but two landmark cases in the 1960s – Brother Daniel and Benjamin Shalit – led to a major redefinition of the Law of Return in 1970. These cases not only raised the level of awareness among the public about the nature of Jewish identity and the meaning of the term as applied in Israel, but influenced the nature of conversion as well.
The first case was that of Oswald Rufeisen, better known as Brother Daniel, a Catholic priest who had been born a Jew but converted and applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
During World War II Rufeisen worked as a translator at the police station in Mir, Belarus. In 1941, he informed his fellow Jews in the Mir Ghetto of the Nazis’ plans for the “final solution” and some 200 Jews managed to escape. After that, he hid in a convent, and subsequently chose to convert to Christianity.
In 1962, he applied for Israeli citizenship, claiming that although he was not a practicing Jew, he was born a Jew, and thus was qualified to become an Israeli citizen. The government rejected his claim, because he had voluntarily converted to Christianity.
Rufeisen appealed to the High Court of Justice, which ruled that he could not receive automatic citizenship as a Jew, since he had converted to Christianity. “This case not only was the subject of intense discussion within the context of Israeli law, but was widely discussed and debated in the Jewish religious world as well,” said Waxman.
It was the case of Benjamin Shalit, according to Waxman, that led to the redefinition of the term Jew in Israeli law. Shalit, an Israeli naval officer who was married to a non-Jewish woman, wanted to have his two children registered as Jewish on their ID cards by nationality and to have the listing for religion left blank.
The Interior Ministry refused, and in 1970 he petitioned the High Court. By a vote of 5-4, the court ruled that secular law would apply in the case and his children could be registered as Jews by nationality, with no official religion.
Elad Caplan, a lawyer and advocacy center manager at ITIM, a Jerusalem-based organization that helps people in Israel who wish to convert, explains that “the court’s ruling in the Shalit case advanced the discussion as to whether Judaism is a religion or a nationality, or a combination of the two.
“The Supreme Court’s rulings on the cases of Brother Daniel and Shalit in the ‘60s and ‘70s made it clear that the Law of Return is an important element in the definition of Jewish identity.”
The court’s decision aroused a firestorm of protest, which led to the amendment and expansion of the Law of Return by the Knesset, which reformulated the law in 1970. It stated that, for the purposes of the law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.
In the same ruling, the Law of Return was also expanded to include children and grandchildren of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who had been a Jew and had voluntarily changed his religion.
Dr. Susan Weiss, founder and director of the Center for Women’s Justice and an expert on numerous issues regarding the Chief Rabbinate, including conversion, says, “This revision moved the issue of conversion from the private realm of religion and introduced it into the public realm of the state. Now the state would have to determine who is a good enough Jewish convert for purposes of aliya.”
The law did not specify which type of conversion – Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – would be accepted.
In October 1972, Shlomo Goren and Ovadia Yosef were elected Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis. Both were renowned as outstanding and original rabbinic scholars.
Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, a former MK and close associate of Goren’s, who also presided as chief rabbi of Romania, says there were relatively few conversion cases in Israel until 1967. “After the Six Day War,” he says, “many young, non-Jewish volunteers came to Israel to work in the kibbutzim. Some of these volunteers became romantically involved with kibbutz members, and the leaders of the kibbutz movement – religious and secular alike – were alarmed. They did not want their children to marry non-Jews without converting.”
Rabbis were reluctant to convert non-Jews who lived on secular kibbutzim, explains Hacohen, “because they feared that after conversion, they would return to the secular, non-observant lifestyle of the kibbutz, and in doing so, would not fulfill the condition of Torah observance, which is a prerequisite for conversion.”
Goren, who had previously served as the first chief rabbi of the IDF, had set up special rabbinical courts for conversion during his tenure. After becoming chief rabbi, he established conversion institutes on religious kibbutzim, which taught the basics of Judaism to prospective converts.
Goren felt that there was a much greater chance of their becoming observant in Israel, living in a fully Jewish society, than if they lived outside the Jewish state. He interviewed many of the candidates for conversion personally, and assembled and convened special conversion courts to expedite the process.
“Rabbi Goren did two important things,” explains Fisher. “One, he established special conversion courts.
It’s a complete shift in Jewish history. Even today, in the Diaspora, there are no special conversion courts that deal only with conversion. Second, he set up a special educational system for preparation to conversion.
Rabbi Goren’s leniencies in conversion were limited to conversions that were conducted in Israel, and required the convert to remain in Israel. Says Waxman, “The conversion certificates issued under his jurisdiction stated clearly that they were valid only in Israel. To my mind, he was the most Zionist halachist. He really had a Zionist conception of Halacha [Jewish law].”
While Goren’s term as chief rabbi was marked by numerous disagreements with his Sephardi counterpart Yosef, there is no question that his efforts to streamline the process, as well as his leniencies in the matter, had great influence. “When the Law of Return was changed in 1970,” says Waxman, “and the government wanted to deal with conversion, Rabbi Goren was the right man at the right time.”
The huge Russian aliya that would occur just a few short years later would change the picture significantly.