State comptroller slams Conversion Authority

The report slammed the Exceptions Committee of the Conversion Authority which deals with foreign citizens in Israel seeking to convert.

Conversion 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Conversion 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The State Conversion Authority came under heavy fire from the state comptroller for not fulfilling targets to convert Israelis of Jewish descent who are not Jewish under Jewish law, in his annual report.
The report’s chapter on conversion, covering the years 2008 to 2011, highlighted several administrative failures of the Conversion Authority and argued that these shortcomings were in part responsible for the low conversion statistics and the deficiencies in this public service.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a mass immigration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe created an influx of people that – while eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return by having at least one Jewish parent – were not Jewish according to religious law, which requires the person’s mother be Jewish.
By 2009, the number of Israelis of Jewish descent, but not recognized as Jews, stood at 318,000. Prominent public figures, both religious and secular, and NGOs working in this field, urged the government to increase conversions to prevent the ongoing phenomenon of intermarriage caused by a group of this size.
The State Comptroller’s Report cited a 2008 speech by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in which he stated that “we cannot reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are nearly 350,000 Israeli citizens who chose to live in Israel, who chose to tie their fate to the fate of the Jewish people, but that the tools and opportunity to bring them into the Jewish people have not been created.”
A government decision that same year recognized the issue and put forth an annual target of 8,300 converts.
But this was never met.
In both 2008 and 2009 there were just over 6,000 converts, in 2010 approximately 4,700 and in 2011 around 4,300.
The initial decline can largely be attributed to the tail-off in Ethiopian immigration, since all Ethiopian immigrants require conversion, but the number of converts of non-Jewish Israelis of Jewish descent from the former Soviet Union remained below 2,000 in 2007 and every year since.
As a result, the total population of non-Jewish Israelis of Jewish descent has grown since 2009 and, as of 2011, reached a total of 327,000 people.
“Despite the large amount of resources put into the Conversion Authority, the number of converts is not increasing and has even decreased and the targets are not being reached,” the report said.
“The Conversion Authority must examine the reasons for failing to fulfill the 2008 targets, in consultation with relevant professionals and organizations dealing with this issue.”
Prof. Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, heavily criticized the findings of the report and the failure to increase the rate of conversion of non-Jewish Israelis of Jewish descent.
“The report shows a striking failure of the government to carry out its decisions with regard to this mission of national importance,” said Stern.
“Failure of the government to foster conversion, among those who are not Jewish according to Jewish law but consider themselves part of the Jewish people, has serious consequences. Most Israeli Jews are opposed to assimilation.
Yet, if we do not address the issue of conversion, assimilation will become commonplace in the State of Israel.”
Itim, an independent religious services advisory body which has frequently criticized the conversion authority, said the findings of the report were not surprising and called for the adoption of its recommendations.
“The State of Israel declared itself to be a state for the ingathering of the exiles and appropriate administration of the conversion system should be of paramount interest.
Loving the stranger is [a] fundamental pillar of our existence as a Jewish and democratic state and this report should lead to rapid change,” the organization said.
In addition to the failure in fulfilling conversion targets, the report pointed to several serious administrative problems.
One of the most important was the high drop-out rate, and significant number, of conversion candidates from the conversion course.
In 2008, 20 percent of candidates left the course, followed by 22% in 2009, 32% in 2010 and 26% in 2011 – representing on average a quarter of all candidates.
The state comptroller pointed to the failure to implement a 2008 government decision to create a ministerial committee and a steering committee to advance the issue of conversion.
Also, the report pointed out that the Conversion Authority does not have a regular framework for oversight and inspection, which negatively impacts its effectiveness.
The report slammed the Exceptions Committee of the Conversion Authority which deals with foreign citizens in Israel seeking to convert. It pointed to the operative guidelines of the committee – devised by the justice minister, interior minister and the chief rabbis – that established certain threshold criteria for a candidate to even be considered for conversion.
The report said that for many foreign citizens seeking to convert who did not fulfill this criteria, they were then denied the ability to join a conversion course.
“The only intent of these people is to bind themselves to the Jewish people or to marry their Jewish partner according to Jewish law.
Their sincere intent to convert is not examined at all by the committee because they are rejected outright by threshold criteria,” the report stated.