Ex-Justice Min. warns of African migrant conversion

At Israel Democracy Institute conference, experts quiz Friedmann on his 'conversion concern,' as he concedes it may be unlikely.

A young African girl in Israel 370 (R) (photo credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters)
A young African girl in Israel 370 (R)
(photo credit: Baz Ratner / Reuters)
Former justice minister Daniel Friedmann raised on Sunday the specter of a massive wave of African migrants being able to get Israeli citizenship by converting to Judaism, saying the state has “let go of the keys” to regulating such immigration.
Friedmann cited the Law of Return as making conversion to Judaism one way to gain citizenship, and said it does not precisely define the conversion process, though the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical bodies abroad have generally had significant influence on the issue.
His comments were made at a conference on “Immigration and the Future of the Nation State” being hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on Sunday and Monday.
Friedmann’s comments appeared to be a concern he was raising following Israel’s success in significantly stemming the stream of migrants illegally crossing Israel’s borders by building a wall on the Egyptian border and detention centers for new arriving migrants. He was justice minister from 2007 to 2009.
Although Friedmann did not say that the conversion concern was beyond theoretical or immediately concrete, the suggestion drew surprise and harsh questioning from the other academics at the conference.
Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Shulamit Volkov was the first to jump in, asking if there was any such major development of converting African migrants in Israel.
“Is there a real problem? Why is conversion a real issue” for migrants, she asked.
Friedmann appeared to concede that mass conversion of African migrants in Israel was unlikely, but responded that “it is easy to convert outside” Israel.
Next, Prof. Ruud Koopmans of Berlin asked Friedmann, “Why would they [the African migrants] want to give up their religion?” Koopmans acknowledged that some migrants leave for “purely economic reasons,” but asked, for those who “leave the country to maintain their religion – why would they convert?” Friedmann said, “I don’t know why. But certainly they are desperate,” noting that migrants come to Israel despite “torture, risks to their lives, rape. I don’t think they have been presented with the option.”
Several participants chimed in, saying that even if this scenario ever became “realistic, the law would be immediately changed,” with one participant saying that this was an “absurd scenario.”
Several talks at the conference focused on other nations’ disparate approaches to the global phenomenon of large numbers of migrants coming to their shores.
There was a lively debate on whether a multicultural and lenient approach to immigration and absorption had positive or negative effects, or whether results were simply different in different countries.
Another debate occurred regarding whether Muslim immigrants as a group created larger social problems because of what was referred to as their religious and other unique demands.
Some participants believed there was a unique issue with Muslim migrants, whereas others said the issue was that the number of Muslim migrants was larger than other groups and that if there was a similar large number of other groups, the same bigger issues and cultural clashes could arise.