Tolerating the intolerable: State revocation of religious conversions

Most revocations are done under the radar of the Israeli public.

Haredim (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Imagine, if you will, a state in which informants stake out wayward women – those who wear their skirts too short; ride cars on Shabbat; or who have had premarital sex, sex with men who are not their husbands, or sex without the proper ritual immersion. And then imagine, if you dare, that judges of that same state can summon those women, the informants, and other witnesses into court and, if the findings are not to their liking, punish such women by declaring them, as well as their children, second class citizens who are not eligible to marry first class citizens of the state. And then imagine again, in your worst dreams, that there is no official body or institution of the state which protects those women and children from the resulting infringements on their individual liberties.
I live in such a state. It is not imaginary. In Israel, informants can “rat” on converts to the special conversion courts set up by government order in 1998. In response to what they consider to be incriminating information, conversion courts can summon converts to court and revoke their status as Jews, placing them on official state blacklists and wreaking havoc on their families.
And like the conversion courts, state rabbinic courts can also revoke conversions.
Using the request of converts to marry or divorce as an excuse to double check if the supplicant is really a Jew, rabbinic courts initiate questions and conduct trials with regard to the behavior and beliefs of converts, revoking conversions as they see fit.
Most revocations are done under the radar of the Israeli public. In 2008, the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) petitioned the Supreme Court to rescind revocations rendered by the rabbinic courts subsequent to uncontested divorce proceedings.
CWJ argued that rabbinic courts have no jurisdiction to revoke conversions recognized by the state, nor do they have jurisdiction to initiate revocation hearings as a corollary to their authority over uncontested divorces. Sidestepping CWJ’s jurisdictional challenge, the Supreme Court avoided addressing the principle issue at stake (as it often does) and opted instead to solve the particular case at hand by sending the converts back for further interrogation by the rabbinic court in order to make them kosher again. In 2013, CWJ asked the Supreme Court to call into question the jurisdiction of special conversion courts to revoke conversions. It argued that even if it can be claimed that conversion courts have administrative authority to authorize conversions, they do not have executive and judicial authority to reverse the process and revoke them.
On December 17, 2014, the Supreme Court of the State of Israel dismissed CWJ’s challenge to the authority of special rabbinic courts to repeal conversions. In a decision written by Justice Neal Handel, the court held laconically that special rabbinic courts have jurisdiction to repeal conversions in cases of fraud and that a “drastic change of lifestyle” subsequent to conversion is proof of such fraud. The attorney general’s office defended the activities of the special rabbinic court. No civil servant or government official rose to protect the convert and her civil liberties.
Putting aside for a moment the claim that Jewish law does not allow for the revocation of conversions on any basis whatsoever, and even arguing, just for the moment, that Jewish law supports such revocations, the Supreme Court’s decision is in grave error. In my opinion, it will generate, as the Hebrew saying goes, “tears for generations.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to back the authority of state courts to revoke conversions is unjust. It supports the ability of third parties to brutalize, mistreat and extort those more weak and vulnerable than themselves.
In the case at hand, the informant was the convert’s husband. He used the threat of revoking his wife’s conversion to prevent her from terminating their failed relationship, and, when that did not work, to gain financial favor in their divorce case. The Supreme Court decision assures that converts can be extorted and threatened their whole lives.
The Supreme Court’s decision also strengthens the state’s theocratic arm against its citizens, subjecting them to what is tantamount to an Inquisition. The state should not be in the business of religious conversions in the first instance. But it certainly should not be in the inquisitorial business of policing and punishing alleged wayward converts .This Inquisition gives the state broad police, executive and judicial powers to investigate, prosecute and punish citizens for not meeting up to religious standards. In the case of converts, state religious bodies can inquire with regard to who they visit, what they eat, how they can educate their children, what birth control they use, how they observe Shabbat, how they conduct their sex lives, and whether or not they believe in the world to come, as just some examples. The Israeli state, by the way, gives similar broad police, executive and judicial powers to rabbinic authorities to investigate in the matter of adulterous women and any children born to them (but that is another story).
Most troubling, the court’s decision is an expression of how Israel’s tin-pot (partial) theocracy is slowly transforming and expanding into a totalitarian one. Today Israel’s theocracy may only be allowing Inquisitions against converts, adulteresses and their children. It may only be enforcing religious norms and rituals on its citizens with regard to marriage and divorce. But tomorrow the state may incarcerate women for wearing prayer shawls; bar women from singing or dancing in public spaces; or allow political parties to refuse to let women run for public office. It could turn a blind eye when women are forced to sit in the back of the bus, walk on separate sidewalks, or are absent from the public sphere. It could neglect to enforce a core curriculum and permit schools to teach religious values that disparage humanistic ones. It may refuse to give priority to human rights and fail to set up any state institution that protects those rights.
As Israel’s theocracy expands and transforms, the state is increasingly tolerating the increasingly intolerable in the name of God and His laws, allowing religious courts and bureaucratic institutions to invade our privacy and freedom of conscience. Today we might not feel personally threatened by those religious courts and institutions, especially if they are consonant with our private beliefs and conscience. Or if we are not converts.
But tomorrow those religious courts and institutions may be staffed with persons with whom we do not agree and who answer to a different kind of God. Or our son or daughter may want to marry a convert.
And we will not be able to avoid the grip of those courts and institutions who make decisions in His name because there is no state institution to protect our civil liberties.
And because His Word is inviolable, non-negotiable, and not subject to the review of the Israeli Supreme Court.
God save us Israelis from such theocracy.
Susan Weiss is the founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Justice.