Better a Jew
For the growing minority of non-Jews living in Israel, a sense of belonging can be impossible to achieve.
Just recently, former MK Michael Kleiner described non-Jewish immigrants to Israel as "dirty water." He applied the metaphor to Russian immigrants, but his racist statement was also aimed at me. The only difference is that I'm the dirty water that slopped in from England, not Russia. Kleiner's comments are not unusual in Israel. For years now I've been listening to politicians, public officials, even ordinary people spilling out bile toward the non-Jewish citizens of the country.
Living in Israel as a gentile is not an easy experience. There is always someone out there to remind you that not only do you not belong, but that in some way you are polluting the purity of the country. During my early years in Israel, the first question people asked me was whether or not I was Jewish. It was like an obsession. In taxicabs, at bus stops, at interviews, at work, even in the supermarket, the question followed me everywhere and anywhere. "Are you Jewish?"
I lied about it twice. The first time to a taxi driver. He eyed me suspiciously and then launched into a tirade about his brother who had married a goy and gone to live in America. "It's people like him who are destroying the Jewish race," he told me angrily, his eyes locked on mine in the mirror. "I cannot forgive him."
The second time I was standing in a queue at a public toilet. I was six months pregnant and the toilet attendant, an elderly man with a stoop, shuffled over to me. "Where are you from?" he asked. "England, but I live here now," I replied in Hebrew. "Are you Jewish?" he asked. "Yes," I said, hoping to put the whole conversation to rest. Instead the man took my hand, and with tears in his eyes thanked me for moving to Israel, and for bearing this child here in the Jewish homeland. I never lied about it again.
I met my Israeli husband in India in 1990. We lived in England for a few years and then decided to move to Israel and get married. Before we left, my husband asked if I would convert to Judaism. He told me it was important for both him and his family. I agreed. I'm not a practicing Christian. I only went to church on special occasions. My faith went so far as the morning assembly at my Church of England school and the Lord's Prayer. I was open to Judaism. I thought that becoming Jewish would be an intellectual and emotional challenge. I thought it would bring me closer to my husband's family and my new way of life. I expected it to give me great insight into the Jewish people. In retrospect it did, but certainly not in the positive way I was anticipating.
My first encounter with Orthodox Judaism came in London, where I approached a rabbi who worked with university students. He gave me a handwriting test and after examining my graphic flourishes, said he would be happy to teach me. The first week he talked about the laws pertaining to the physical relationship between married couples. The following weeks the subject was the same. The rabbi complimented me on my eyes, commented on my appearance, and told me his wife was eight months pregnant. I grew uncomfortable and soon stopped going.
`Just a game'
My husband and I moved to Israel in 1993. We got married in a civil ceremony in Cyprus, and then a year later married in Britain. We also wanted to have a wedding in Israel, but decided to delay it until I became Jewish.
We applied to the rabbinate in Jerusalem. I sat with my husband in the corridor waiting to see a rabbi. The mood in the halls was tense.
"Don't let them see you're nervous," one young conversion candidate advised me. "They'll never let you through if they think they've got you scared."
"You just have to play a game with them," another would-be convert agreed. "Don't tell them anything other than what you have to. Don't give anything away."
Half way through our long wait, a girl burst out of a room sobbing furiously. "I've been studying a year and a half. I've taken test after test and they still tell me that I'm not committed," she wailed.
After talking with the rabbi, my husband and I realized that it would be impossible to convert this way. We were already married and our lifestyle in Tel Aviv was far from that required by the Orthodox. We started looking for alternatives, and found a rabbi who would be willing to help me convert for NIS 600 a week.
The rabbi lived in an Orthodox suburb in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. Twice a week we sat in his tiny, dark apartment studying at the dining room table. Whenever I asked a question he would snap at me angrily. "Don't ask questions. It's a matter of faith. You're not supposed to understand. You're just supposed to believe." Sometimes he would ask a question and as I made to reply, he would bark out "wrong!"
Whenever possible, he criticized the Christian religion. He told me it had been set up for people who were too lazy to live by Jewish rules, by people looking for an easy life. On one occasion he told me that Baruch Goldstein should be praised for killing 29 Arabs in an attack in Hebron in 1994.
Throughout those awful weekly meetings I kept quiet. I gritted my teeth, studied the books, paid him the money and did not say a word. Inside, however, I began to seethe. I was sickened by his hypocrisy. He set himself up as a man of faith, then took our money without a moment's hesitation. The more I learned about the Jewish religion in Israel, the more I realized how rife it was with corruption. The media was full of stories about Orthodox figures taking bribes, about scams and dodges carried out in the name of religion. And worse than that, it was like an open secret. Everyone knew about it, they even laughed about it, but no one was prepared to do anything to stop it. Instead they insisted that it was vital that I become Jewish.
After a while I began to question this insistence. No one actually cared whether I believed in Judaism or not, not even the rabbi. No one cared whether I'd continue to celebrate Christmas or any other Christian holidays. When I told Israeli friends that I felt this was morally wrong, many sympathized, but others dismissed my fears. "It's just a game," they'd say. "Don't even think about it." All anyone seemed to care about was that it would say Jewish on my ID card, and that somehow, therefore, I would fit in.
As time went by, I became increasingly distressed. I was shocked by the discrimination I saw around me toward anyone who was not Jewish. In my office, colleagues called me "shiksa" and "goy" as if it were a joke. They made comments about my non-Jewish appearance. Readers wrote letters of complaint if newspapers dared run adverts for Christmas festivities. The media was constantly running stories about how the Jewish race was being destroyed by assimilation. A cartoon published in 1996 showed a man sitting at a table. "The two major threats to Jewish continuity today are - terrorism and assimilation!" he said. "Or, in other words, the non-Jews who want to kill us - and the non-Jews who want to marry us."
I continued visiting the rabbi, but he began to grow uneasy as stories about corruption in the conversion process began to leak to the press. Finally he told me that he could no longer help. "You're not prepared to suffer enough to become Jewish," he said.
We next tried a rabbinical court lawyer in Jerusalem, a man with good connections to Shas. He offered to convert me for a large sum of money. We met him in a hotel on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He asked me about Jewish friends, about any connections I had with Judaism as a child. After some coaxing, I realized he was not after the truth, just some fabricated story about how, even as a child, I had always wanted to be a Jew. He told my husband to gather certificates and documents showing that I bought my meat only from Kosher butchers, that I attended synagogue, and was following the rules of the Orthodox way.
By the time we left the hotel I knew that I did not want to be Jewish. I bitterly regretted my decision. I was antagonistic and hostile. I did not want to lie or cheat anymore. Not long afterward we were given details of a rabbi in Paris who would convert me for $5,000 in a simple, one-day process. By then, however, it was too late. I was so ashamed of the whole process that I could not go through with it. I felt that by converting I would actually be committing a sin. I decided, however hard it would be, that Israel would have to accept me as I was.
My husband's family took the decision badly. They felt I had cheated and manipulated them, and for a long time afterward their frustration spilled over into our relationship. Very few people here understood me. Some Israeli friends felt I was making an unwarranted fuss about something very minor, while at the same time admitting that they would never dream of changing their own religion.
For years after this experience, my bitterness and resentment continued to seethe. I felt let down by the country. Before arriving here, I believed that the terrible suffering the Jews have experienced over the centuries would have created a nation where tolerance and understanding was prized. Instead, I found a society full of prejudice and bigotry.
Today, my anger has given way to some kind of understanding. Israel is a young and diverse society struggling for a national identity in the face of wave after wave of mass immigration from different countries. The only glue that holds this country together is its Jewish identity, and even this glue is not particularly strong. It is never easy to accept outsiders when a society is so deeply divided. Nor is it simple to welcome strangers when Israel is still viewed as a safe haven for Jews in an increasingly anti-Semitic world.
But Israel must face facts. Today there is a growing minority of non-Jews who live within the Israeli community. We are full members of this society and yet we are still denied some very basic human rights. My two sons, for instance, can serve in the army, they can pay taxes, but they cannot marry here, nor can they be buried alongside Jewish friends or partners. Like me, they will spend their lives listening to constant sniping remarks by politicians and officials who feel they are second class citizens, the dirty water that slipped in on a wave of immigration. They too may have to listen to jokes about goys, sarcastic comments about their parental heritage, and have doubts raised about their Israeli identity.
This, however, is a mistake. Today there are 50,000 Russian immigrants living in Israel who identify themselves as Christian, and another 270,000 who are not Jewish according to halakha. While some of them have given up and left Israel, in a few cases even seeking asylum in England on the grounds of religious persecution, the rest are here to stay. Israel must make a decision. Does it want yet another alienated minority, or does it want full citizens who feel a real bond to their country?
In the wake of all this, it is hard to understand why the Orthodox community is so determined to make conversion such an unpleasant process. Every year thousands apply to convert, but only a small number make it through. Assimilation today is a major problem for diaspora Jews. Experts are beginning to realize that it is also a growing problem within Israel. At a recent conference, Dr. Asher Cohen, of Bar-Ilan University's Institute for the Study of Assimilation, reported that the present rate of intermarriage in Israel stands at 10 percent, and is rising. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, head of the Kibbutz Hadati Yeshiva, also told participants that rabbis who ease the conversion process and promote mass conversion, are actually preserving Judaism.
Instead of welcoming new converts, however, Judaism shows them its worst face. Potential converts are too often met with narrow-mindedness, corruption, and distrust. While some people undertake conversion with a full heart, many others view it as a game in which you cheat and lie to win.
Had I been met with understanding, then perhaps I would be Jewish now, and so would my two children. For Israel, it was a missed opportunity. Instead of teaching me to respect the religion, I learned instead to despise its protagonists. My children are growing up as Israelis. Their overwhelming identification is as Jews. But they also celebrate Christmas and Easter. If they ever decide they want to convert, I will support them, but there's no doubt my experiences will shape what I tell them about the Orthodox religion.
Today, I have no real idea of what it will mean to bring up two non-Jewish children in Israel. Perhaps as they get older they will be bullied by classmates, perhaps they will be accepted unquestioningly, perhaps they will feel they do not belong. Much depends on where we live and where they go to school. Much also depends on how Israel develops once the war with the Palestinians is finally concluded.
In the last few years, I have noticed a change in Israel's character, a growing maturity and tolerance within the secular population. Israelis today are more willing to accept people who are different. Certainly things for me have changed. I now have a warm relationship with my parents-in-law, whom I love dearly, and people rarely ask if I'm Jewish.
Despite that, however, I still feel like an outsider. At Christmas I bring out my tree and decorate the house, but inside I feel it's almost an act of defiance. A few years ago, a co-worker arrived in the office fuming because hotels in Jerusalem had put up Christmas trees. I told her that I put up a tree every year. "Well I hope you shut your curtains," she said bitterly. "It's not right that people in your neighborhood should have to see it. When you live here you should respect our beliefs." I was deeply distressed by her prejudice, but the awful truth is that I really have begun to feel that my religion should be hidden away behind curtains.
Just a few weeks ago I had another reminder. I was writing an article on Tekes, a new alternative Israeli organization set up to provide secular ceremonies for Jews who cannot, or do not want to, undergo an Orthodox ceremony. I suggested to the founder that I might also write up the article for a newspaper here. He hesitated for a few moments, and then said: "No offense, but I think it would be better if a Jew wrote the story."