The Conversion Crisis in Israel

Ariel Finkelstein

As a result of the opening of the immigration floodgates over the past two decades, there are currently some 318,000 citizens of Israel classified as without religion or as Christians who identify with the Jewish majority. Within 15 years that number will reach approximately 400,000. This situation creates problems and challenges for the State of Israel, both in terms of the specific citizens’ personal statuses and in national terms.

Even though following the 2008 recommendations of the Halfon Committee on conversion Israel has invested great resources in the official conversion mechanism and despite the natural increase in candidates for conversion, there has been a decrease in the number of converts over the past few years. Even before this, the number of converts had been below expectations.

Surveys show that most immigrants who are potential converts do not even consider the option, for two main reasons: a lack of basic motivation to convert and the policies and administration of the conversion courts. One-third of immigrants who do start the conversion process never finish it.

The State Comptroller’s latest report points to a series of problems in the courts: on the administrative level the report speaks of many failures such as a shortage of mohels and of mikvahs, delays in issuing conversion certificates, illegally charging converts for the process, not staffing the position of conversion system supervisor, and the tardiness with which judges arrive at hearings. More significant problems were found on the strategic level: the State Comptroller has claimed that the conversion division operated without defined work plans and without consistent oversight. Another significant problem raised by the report is that much of the division’s budget went to funding Jewish identity projects though fewer than half the program graduates went on to convert. The report also showed that the government decisions to create a ministerial committee about conversion and the call for distance learning courses for converts were never implemented.

Beyond the technical and strategic problems existing in the conversion courts, the main obstacle to those seeking conversion is the halachic demand that converts fully accept the obligation to fulfill all the commandments. This ruling is upheld by a majority of religious judges, but rabbis who have been involved in conversions have presented more lenient approaches. Former MK Rabbi Chaim Amsalem has stated that if there is a reasonable chance the candidate will fulfill the commandments he should be allowed to convert and Rabbi Yosef Avior has stated that converts should not be required to scrupulously fulfill all 613 commandments; a minimum of Sabbath and kashrut observance, a commitment to giving their children a religious education, and commemoration of Jewish holidays ought to suffice. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun has gone so far as to suggest that mass ritual conversion ceremonies be held, based on a process of basic Jewish education.

Two significant proposals about conversion were raised during the term of the last Knesset but never got to the stage of becoming laws. One, called the “Conversion Law,” was proposed by MK David Rotem and would have allowed city and local council rabbis to conduct conversions. It was opposed both by the Charedi parties, who feared that an increased number of rabbis authorized to conduct conversions would lead to a more lenient conversion policy, and by the Reform and Conservative movements, who argued that the law would give the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodoxy an absolute monopoly on conversion.

Another law would have normalized the status of army conversions. MK Rotem along with MK Robert Ilatov proposed the law after rabbinical court judges had questioned the conversions, but once Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef authorized army conversions, the law was no longer on the agenda. MK Rotem continued unsuccessfully to push for his law; he felt that the Chief Rabbinate could change its decision in the future and that the matter ought to be set in law.

There are other important issues in the area of conversion. Some are on the public agenda and some are currently the subjects of appeals to the High Court of Justice. These issues include the status of people converted in private rabbinical courts, the status of people converted by Orthodox practice abroad, and the authority of the Conversions Exceptions Committee, which deals with requests by foreigners to convert in Israel.

The Gavison-Medan Covenant offers a different view of conversions. According to the covenant, a new category of “joined the Jewish nation” ought to be established, with conversion to halachic standards being only one of the possibilities for membership. Gavison and Medan argue that this allows circumvention of the halachic minefield and bypasses the internal discussion of conversion in religious circles while allowing the government to see the person who is halachically non-Jewish as having a substantial connection to the Jewish people. Taken as part of the wider picture presented in the Gavison-Medan Covenant (including civil interment and civil marriages with some restrictions) we find a significant change: this process will free the Gordian knot created when the government tried to dictate its religious outlook to the rabbinical world and charges the government with the responsibility of finding answers to the problems of citizens’ personal status during life events such as burial and marriage.

to the full position paper (in Hebrew)

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