'Conversion authority is inefficient, cumbersome'

Knesset panel critiques Authority; June changes mean applicants must now wait 18 months after civil wedding before applying for conversion.

Rabbinate fighting non-orthodox 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbinate fighting non-orthodox 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Knesset State Control Committee on Wednesday accused the Conversion Authority of foot-dragging on conversion applications, a lack of transparency and the implementation of unauthorized procedural guidelines.
The committee’s ire was directed specifically at the Conversion Authority’s committee for exceptional cases, which deals with anyone who is not a permanent resident, such as spouses of Israelis who have married in a civil ceremony abroad, students and those here on tourist visas.
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The Conversion Authority, which was established 15 years ago and operates under the Prime Minister’s Office, oversees the bureaucratic process of a convert’s application and is meant to help the applicant.
The exception’s committee includes representatives from the Interior and Justice ministries and is headed by a representative of Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who has overall authority over conversions conducted in Israel.
“It is unacceptable that someone wishing to join the Jewish people, and who has the appropriate documentation, should have to endure a path of suffering that in the end causes him to despair of the entire process,” State Control Committee chairman Ronnie Bar-On said during the hearing.
A State Comptroller’s Office representative said at the end of the hearing that his office would examine the exception committee’s conduct in 2012 and would deal with the matter in a departmental report.
According to ITIM: The Jewish- Life Information Center, a religious rights advocacy organization that prompted the hearing, there are 10,000 couples in Israel in which one of the spouses is seeking to convert but whose conversion process has been delayed by the Conversion Authority’s exceptions committee.
“The rationale for discouraging conversion is based on the fear that thousands of illegal foreign workers will convert to attain citizenship,” ITIM Director Rabbi Seth Farber said. “But in the process the Conversion Authority is denying more than 10,000 individuals who are eligible for citizenship the right to a Jewish family.”
ITIM argues that the decision as to whether or not to allow a conversion candidate to proceed should not be in the hands of the exceptions committee but should instead be dealt with by a rabbinical court.
“At the moment, applicants are just being rejected out of hand, without even being interviewed by the committee,” Farber said.
He added that those worst affected by the committee are Orthodox people who wish to marry a partner who desires to convert, but will not marry them until the conversion is completed.
Dina Sher, a woman seeking to marry an aspiring convert, related her case during the hearing.
“I am religious and my husband is from South America and we won’t get married before he converts. But the process is far too slow for a couple who aren’t married.
The exceptions committee rejected our request, and wouldn’t even agree to listen to my husband’s conversion teacher who wished to testify as to his seriousness [to convert],” Sher said.
Turning to Dr. Rafael Dayan, the chairman of the exceptions committee, she told him, “I suffered for three years because of you, this is the first time I’ve ever met you.”
The exceptions committee does not meet personally with the conversion candidates, something that was criticized in the hearing as well.
Dayan, rejected claims that the committee was not functioning appropriately and said that in 2011 there were 187 non-Israeli conversion applicants, 65 percent of whom have been approved.
In response to an inquiry by The Jerusalem Post, the Prime Minister’s Office said that new guidelines had been established in June to improve the committee’s efficiency.
ITIM says, however, that the new guidelines are unhelpful, as anyone applying for conversion must now wait a year and a half after his or her civil wedding before even applying for conversion. Until June, one could apply immediately.
The time it takes for the committee to provide an answer as to whether or not the applicant can begin to study for conversion normally ranges between six and 18 months, Farber said.
Those who do not get married in a civil ceremony abroad but declare a common law partnership must wait four years before applying for conversion, and the actual study process for converting is, on average, one year.
Dayan also claimed that the exceptions committee met once a week, although it was subsequently discovered during the hearing that on average, the committee has met approximately once a month.
An attorney from the State Attorney’s Office said during the hearing that although there are cases deserving of a simpler, easier path to conversion, it is not possible that every person requesting to covert will be allowed to do so.
MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), who initiated the hearing, was unimpressed with the responses provided by the committee representatives. “The committee is acting in an improper, inefficient and cumbersome manner,” he said.
“The attempts to demonstrate that there have been improvements in the committee’s approach are not satisfactory.
A drastic change is required in the committee’s attitude and the criteria it has set [for non-citizen conversion applicants].”