Illustration Amos Biderman
Illustration. Photo by Amos Biderman
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The debate over the conversion bill is deceptive. It's being held in -remote and dark places, it deals with trivial matters, it appears to affect the fate of very few, and it seems to interest even fewer. But what is really going on there should trouble every Israeli, because it touches on the most fundamental issues that define our society and state.

The question whether military or civilian rabbis will determine who is a Jew is marginal. Rafi Peretz or Shlomo Amar, who cares? Ten times more significant is the question whether we happen to be living in the only country on earth where clerics determine the right to citizenship. No less important, how do we dare continue deceiving ourselves that this is a secular and democratic state?

The rabbis are Israel's gatekeepers. What most of them believe became painfully evident recently when they published a ruling that prohibits renting apartments to Arabs and foreigners. One "moderate" rabbi did propose a "compromise": renting apartments only to "good Arabs." Another moderate rabbi said that "there is no wisdom" in the rabbis' letter, but not a word about morality and justice. Most of them are frighteningly narrow-minded, obsessed with fear, and willing to whip up hatred toward foreigners they never met. What do they know about the world? Or about human rights?

Convinced and trying to convince others that the Jews are a chosen people, to which entry and even contact with those deemed inferior is forbidden, they live in their narrow pale of settlement, most of them boorish and ignorant of what happens outside. They are our gatekeepers, and they determine our real image. Like the goons who get to select people at the entrance to dance clubs, the rabbis determine the character of the whole party, and this party is a benighted religious party.

The conversion debate raises another, deeper question: according to the bill, Judaism is a religion, solely a religion and not a nationality or people. So much for "the Jewish people" and "the people of Israel." If rabbis are the gatekeepers, then it's about joining a religion and ritual, not a people and state. In the so-called secular state of Israel, then, it is impossible to join the Jewish people and stay secular. How can we claim that Judaism is both a faith and nationality if joining it is based solely on Jewish law and rulings of rabbis? What about those who want to join "the people of Israel" but don't believe in God? Why is the word atheist still a profanity in Israel, unmentionable? Entry for religious people only? Only in a state governed by religious law.

It's time to admit that this approach can only be called racist. Yes, that hackneyed term. That's what it is when it is the blood flowing through the veins that determines your status. If the grandson of a woman whose Judaism is doubtful has the right to automatic citizenship when he arrives here from the ends of the earth, and a non-Jewish soldier who chose to fight and live here runs into rabbinic obstacles, then this is not just judgment by religious law, but judgment by racist law. If the Arab native is an outcast, but a member of the "Tribe of Menasseh" from Burma is welcomed with full rights simply because a rabbi said he was Jewish, then this is a benighted theocracy. Sixty-two years after the establishment of the state, the time has come to summon the courage and change this reality.

Sufficiently rooted already, Israel must continue to be a home and shelter for every Jew, but by no means just for them. The time has come for normalcy, for joining the enlightened world, in which immigration laws are determined solely by civil criteria. Not entry for all - there's no such thing anywhere in the world - but criteria of a state and society, not of God and religious law.

For most Israelis, who have grown up in this distorted reality, all this seems to be normal. It's normal to live in a state where there is no public transportation on the Sabbath, where on almost every doorpost there's a mezuzah, where there's no possibility of civil marriage, where the state institutes blatantly religious laws and the rabbis are the sole arbiters of who can join the people. There's virtually no protest against any of this. Even the public debate, to the extent that it exists, is limited to the marginal questions: the military or civil rabbinate? And after all this, we dare call ours a liberal and modern state.