Don't Concede on Conversion

Some 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants have moved to Israel over the last 15 years and the Jewish orthodox establishment is denying them the chance of conversion.

Can a person who does not believe in God, does not observe the Sabbath, does not send his children to religious schools and does not put on tefillin (phylacteries) be a good Jew? Certainly. Even an excellent Jew. It is reasonable to assume that most of the Jewish state's most prominent leaders fit this definition. Can such a person become a Jew? Not from the perspective of the rabbinical courts, to whom the state has given the keys to joining the Jewish people.

The rabbinate's policy is that only those who intend to carry out the religious commandments (or who pose as religiously observant) can convert. This rule generates clear sectorial discrimination: Those who are prepared to be Orthodox, like the rabbis carrying out the conversion - to behave like them and join their camp - can be Jews. Those who appear secular, behave like secular people and plan to be secular remain non-Jews.

It is not by chance that the question of "who is a Jew" has become one of the toughest, longest and most fundamental religious struggles in the history of the State of Israel. This struggle involves more than the question of who is a Jew or who can become one; it involves the question of who determines who is a Jew and distributes entry permits to the Jewish people. The Reform and Conservative movements, which are waging the battle, have grasped that whoever is not determining "who is a Jew" is essentially a second-class Jew. Secular people, who have already established places of Torah study and developed marriage and mourning ceremonies, have yet to understand that they must also establish conversion courts.

This need has become more intense as a result of the rabbinical establishment's total failure to cope with the conversion challenge posed by immigration from the former Soviet Union. Some 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants have moved to Israel in the last 15 years. It is reasonable to assume that most of them were prepared to convert to Judaism when they arrived. Some are still ready to do so. However, the rabbinate converted only a few thousand. The immigrants, most of whom are totally secular, are an inseparable part of Jewish society. The time has come for the secular majority to allow them to join the Jewish people as well, and to do so in its own way.

It would be pretentious to try to state, in the framework of a short op-ed piece, what the secular conversion process should include and what conditions it should put in place. But it is possible to make a few suggestions. The situation today is that some 90 percent of converts at rabbinical courts (not including Ethiopians) are women. This is because, from the Orthodox perspective, they are the ones who determine the children's religion, and also because men who want to convert must undergo circumcision. Nonetheless, women have no representation in conversion courts. Secular conversion courts would have to grant them extensive representation.

The main condition for secular conversion should be proof of a genuine and sincere desire to join the Jewish people. The following should be taken into account: immigration to Israel, service in the Israel Defense Forces, contribution to the Jewish state, fluency in Hebrew and integration into Jewish society, community and culture. The accepted argument against this list of criteria is that these are characteristics of Israeliness, not of Jewishness. That is not precise. These are characteristics of Jewish Israeliness.

The converts would acquire knowledge of Jewish (and Zionist) culture during a course over an extended period of time. Leaders of the Orthodox denomination argue that their control over conversion is crucial for national unity. This argument has long been irrelevant. The ultra-Orthodox are not prepared to let their children marry the children of secular people, while the secular willingly accept the children of non-Jewish immigrants.

When the secular allow the rabbis to control conversion, it is as though they are acknowledging that the rabbis really do know better than they do who is a Jew. This is an unreasonable situation, especially for the fair number of secular people convinced that their Jewishness, and not the extremism of the ultra-Orthodox or the Zionist ultra-Orthodox ("hardal"), is the real, true, up-to-date and relevant continuation of Judaism. If secular people are the real continuation of the continuum of Jewish existence, then they have a responsibility toward those who are knocking on the door of their nation. They must not forfeit conversion.