Too few conversions

Israel has neglected to contend with the problem of a sizable number of non-Jewish immigrants.

ethiopians 88 (photo credit: )
ethiopians 88
(photo credit: )
Sixteen years after its inception, the great post-Cold War immigration to Israel is universally crowned as a massive success story. Statistically speaking, the bulk of the million newcomers who emigrated largely from today's Russia and Ukraine, but also from assorted neighboring countries as well as Ethiopia, have been absorbed much more smoothly than even the rosiest forecasts had suggested back when they arrived here. Most are gainfully employed and reasonably housed, socially situated somewhere between the working and middle classes. The immigration's second generation speaks a fluent Hebrew which it sometimes fuses, inventively, with its parents' culture, while its engagement in the defense apparatus has been remarkable. There still are many social and economic problems surrounding this immigration, particularly with its Ethiopian component, but one problem looms larger than all the rest and clouds this entire glorious chapter in Israeli history: conversion. The idea behind the Law of Return, that anyone with a single Jewish grandparent - who therefore would have been Jewish enough for Hitler to murder in his gas chambers - will be offered citizenship in the Jewish state, was and remains a noble one. But it was not imagined that the proportion of new immigrants who qualified under the Law of Return and yet were not halachically Jewish would rise so high. Perhaps even less expected, and certainly less understandably, Israel has neglected to contend with the problem of a sizable number of non-Jewish or questionably Jewish immigrants. This is a problem not because there is something wrong with non-Jews becoming citizens of Israel, but because this population is not becoming as integrated into Israeli society as it could be, and in most cases, would be if narrow and negative bureaucratic attitudes did not get in the way. The situation surrounding the recent immigration has been dramatically complicated by the fact that most of the countries where it originated had actively persecuted Jews and made the practice of Judaism dangerous. The result was a massive, spiritual blow to the Jewish nation that should now be seen by any Jew as an extension of the physical blow the Jews were dealt by the Holocaust. Unfortunately, too many find it difficult to view the situation through such a broad lens and compassionate mind-set. People familiar with the conversion process attest that many involved in it take the liberty of transcending Jewish law's requirements and are trying to use the situation to add more Jews not simply to Israel, but to its more strictly observant communities. Data released recently by the Conversion Administration in the Prime Minister's Office indicates that what began with a bang, when Rabbi Haim Druckman was appointed to oversee a hopefully lenient operation, has so far yielded next to no results. It is hard to fathom how such a situation is justifiable from a Jewish prospective, let alone social and national ones. With a mere 1,166 converts from the former Soviet Union last year, it is fair to say that Israel is failing to seize a historic opportunity. While this number is higher than the previous year's figure of 682, it merely reflects the completion of conversions begun well before 2005, and at any rate is very low in absolute terms. Even more alarmingly, the share of formerly Soviet immigrants among the converts has dropped, for the first time since this immigration's inception, to less than 50 percent, while the share of converts from countries like India and Peru is rising sharply. Curiously enough, the Peruvian converts are ones whose immigration is ignited and shepherded by Orthodox circles. While agreeable in itself, such conversion efforts cannot be allowed to be used as distractions from the main problem, which is to convert with maximum ease and speed as many new immigrants as possible. That is what the IDF does with its share of non-Jewish conscripts, and that is what the civilian system should do with those soldiers' relatives. Shortly after his second election, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told The Jerusalem Post that Israel's supreme strategic goal should be to welcome an additional one million Jews by 2013, and that the reason he excluded the haredi parties from his coalition (at that stage) was that, in their conversion demands, they stood in the way of this goal's accomplishment. Three years on, that has yet to change.