Natan Sharansky
Natan Sharansky. “In no way must we allow the subject of Orthodox conversions to harm the various communities.” Photo by Emil Salman
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Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, is a key player in attempts to forge a compromise regarding conversions in Israel and recognizing the Judaism of people around the world who seek to live here under the Law of Return. He wants the Jewish Agency to serve as an alternative to the rabbis elsewhere in the world who help the Chief Rabbinate decide if someone is entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return.

Do Jews in different parts of the world feel that the arguments in Israel over conversions are alienating − an alienation to their Judaism caused by the state?

There are so many different aspects to the subject of conversion, and I’ve been dealing with them for many years. This means that I’m involved in many discussions with communities abroad. Our challenge today is, on the one hand, to provide a single criterion to Israeli society that defines a person who is joining the Jewish faith, in a way that will be acceptable to all parts of the Jewish people. On the other hand, the State of Israel has to give every Jew in the world the feeling that Israel is a Jewish state that belongs to him − that it doesn’t reject him or consider him second-class.

This mission is in no way simple, and because of it there have been a great number of clashes and arguments in recent years. I still think that the proposal by the Neeman Committee on conversions in Israel was the best.

Unfortunately, even though we got the proposal passed in the Knesset and an institute for conversions was established in 1998, the Chief Rabbinate, on one side, and others were not enthusiastic and didn’t support it with all their might.

And what about the Law of Return? Are the arguments about accepting conversions done in the rest of the world making it hard for Jews who wish to immigrate to Israel under this law?

I want to separate the argument about conversion from the recognition of Judaism for the sake of citizenship-eligibility under the Law of Return. It’s so important that a person who undergoes conversion according to the tradition of his community and who the community accepts as a Jew be eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return. From time to time problems have come up on this subject, especially in cases of Reform or Conservative conversions.

Now problems have also started cropping up in cases of Orthodox conversions. It turned out that in cases of Orthodox conversion, the Interior Ministry would contact the Chief Rabbinate and turn to various Orthodox bodies to consider the person’s Judaism. It turned out that sometimes these bodies would be influenced by political considerations; for example, if the community’s rabbi was accepted or not. And the answers were given on that basis, even though the information was in no way connected with eligibility to make aliyah.

How can the Jewish Agency fit in regarding aid to Jews in the various communities? Is it possible to make things easier for people who wish to immigrate under the Law of Return?

The question of whether a person is Jewish or not is a question that has to be asked of the rabbinate and the government. But the question of whether a person is eligible to make aliyah − that’s our job. We can help everyone who hasn’t gotten permission yet, for irrelevant reasons, if we can confirm that the conversion is acceptable to the community where he lives.

What do you plan to do to get things moving in that direction?

We’ll advise the government to instruct the Interior Ministry to turn to us instead of the Chief Rabbinate to check a person’s Judaism with this or that rabbi abroad. As it is, our emissaries make contact with Jewish communities in different parts of the world and open files for people who want to make aliyah. That means that we can inform the Interior Ministry that the community in which the conversion took place is indeed a normative community. We’re talking about matters of aliyah and not about the question of who is a Jew.

And what chance is there that an initiative of this kind will be accepted?

I plan to appeal [today] to the prime minister and the Interior Ministry about this. In general, we’ve been able to cooperate well over the years with the Interior Ministry about the eligibility of immigrants to come and live in Israel.

The problems with Orthodox conversions have appeared now for the first time. We’re are talking about four cases at this stage, but the precedent here is important because this problem is likely to spread. I hope we won’t have political arguments .... It’s no secret that there are many differences of opinion in the Orthodox world between organizations and people. In no way must we allow this subject to harm the various communities.

In your opinion, is it possible to reach a compromise on conversions in Israel?

The conversion bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem that simplifies the process and allows city rabbis who are considered moderate to carry out the process was frozen for six months. And you were part of the initiative that made it possible to freeze it.

At the moment there is an understanding that the status quo on conversions will continue. The cease-fire will continue for another half year. During this period it was agreed that there will be no attempts to change the existing situation through legislation in the Knesset by MKs or an appeal by the various organizations to the High Court of Justice.

During this time, the government and the Jewish Agency will hold a roundtable conference where the various claims on the subject will be raised.

For the first time, we’ll bring requests and complaints from the Reform movement to a joint discussion. I hope we’ll be able to improve the atmosphere in anticipation of reviving the Rotem bill so it will be phrased in language that is acceptable to everyone. Rotem’s idea about the rabbis in the cities was good. But the amendments that were introduced by the various political parties made it problematic.