Why Be Jewish When You Can Be Israeli?

The national system of Orthodox Jewish religious conversion has not only failed,it has backfired on its protectors.

Over 330,000 of Israel’s citizens are defined officially as being “without religion.” That’s one in every 25 Israelis. And their number is growing. This isn’t an indicator of the growing tide of atheism and godlessness; whatever their beliefs regarding the supreme being, a huge majority of this group defines itself as Jewish. They were born Jewish, told so by their parents and often, to their pain, by those surrounding them at school, university and the workplace. It was their Jewishness that motivated them to move to Israel and made them eligible for citizenship. But when they finally arrived, they were told that everyone else was wrong, and that just because their father and grandparents were Jewish didn’t mean they were.

There’s no such thing as being just half a Jew, and as long as you are not a “full” one, you can forget about getting married in Israel. Successive governments have invested hundreds of millions of shekels in trying to upgrade the giyur ‏(conversion‏) system, in the belief that if it only became efficient, inviting and streamlined, the Israelis “without religion” would flock in their tens of thousands to become official Jews. The annual state comptroller’s report published last week contains a lengthy chapter on the many failings of the system. It is still a calcified bureaucracy, filled with hostile rabbis and officials, with the path awaiting those who wish to join the Jewish people long and arduous. At the same time, the number of converts has plummeted, from 8000 in 2007 to 4,300 in 2011. And the number of citizens “without religion” continues to grow by two or three percent each year.

Better system but fewer converts

But while the conversion system remains corrupt, cumbersome and in no way customer-friendly, the Comptroller also reports that over the last decade, especially during the period during which Rabbi Chaim Druckman was in charge, there was a marked improvement in efficiency and attitude. So if the system is better than it was five years ago, why has the number of converts dropped by half?

Two other interesting details in the report: Converting to Judaism may be a long and arduous process but in recent years a potential convert has a better chance of completing it; last year only 26 percent dropped out before reaching the finishing line. That’s a three-out-of-four success rate, which certainly isn’t bad. If their chances have improved, why are there not more candidates? The question becomes even more poignant when you look at the success rate of what is considered the friendliest and most streamlined conversion course, the one taking place under the auspices of the IDF. Since the soldiers are there anyway in the army, and as young Israelis they live their entire lives together, the rationale of the Nativ program has been that it would be relatively straightforward to help any of them who would be interested in converting. From the report it seems that the Judaism studies courses were popular, but at the end of the day, only 27 percent of the soldiers who attended the courses actually went on toconvert.

I found this figure surprising. I met these soldier-students a number of times, they always seemed to me enthusiastic and motivated and genuinely interested in broadening their knowledge of Jewish culture. So why have barely a quarter of them gone on to the actual conversion?

The only possible explanation is that these young Israelis, who have served in the IDF and spent most of their lives in Israel, simply don’t need anyone to approve their Judaism. They feel just as Jewish and Israeli as their high school friends and army buddies; the very idea that they have to go through a sequence of archaic ceremonies and commit themselves to leading a religious way of life, as the conversion courts demand, is ridiculous to them. Are they not concerned they will not be allowed to marry in Israel, which still does not have a civil marriage law? Most of them are prepared not to have a religious wedding. As it is, a growing number of veteran Israelis prefer any of the alternatives to a union sanctified by the Orthodox rabbinate. Giyur was supposed to be their entrance to the Jewish people, but they already feel just as Jewish as any of their secular Israeli friends, and those who have attended the army’s Judaism courses probably know more about Jewish tradition than the typical product of the national school system.

Legitimizing secular Judaism

Every government over the last 17 years has described reforming conversion as a “national mission,” and prime ministers have called the situation where hundreds of thousands are “without religion” as “intolerable.” There is no shortage of horror stories of innocent converts who have been exploited by rapacious conversion courts and left in limbo for years by heartless officials, but are these stories, along with the generally unfriendly and obstructive nature of the system, the reason for the low number of converts? The data in the comptroller’s report seem to indicate that even when the system is forced to make some improvements, or when young prospective converts are offered what really is a much easier and positive experience ‏(which even gives them time off from their military duties‏), only a tiny portion is interested.

It is not the faulty system that is at fault, it is the entire concept of Orthodox religious conversion that has failed.

Judaism ceased to be a proselytizing religion at the beginning of the Middle Ages, when the rabbis were forced to cease converting gentiles on pain of death and destruction to entire communities. Giyur became an intentionally painful and convoluted process designed to weed out all but those with the purest intentions and strongest of convictions. As the danger of violent reprisals decreased and finally disappeared in the past centuries, the rabbinical establishment was loath to give up its keys to the gateway to the Jewish people. Israeli governments, afraid to take on the rabbis, tried to coax them into gradually easing their requirements and adopting a more customer-oriented attitude. This has been an abject failure, but not only due to the intransigence of the rabbis. The “Russian” aliyah has integrated itself well into Jewish-Israeli society, they don’t need a rabbi to sign a certificate affirming their right to belong. Mainstream Israelis accept them as Jewish and regard those who call them otherwise as backward and xenophobic.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians claim this situation is splitting the Jewish people into two, but so far they are the only ones who seem to feel that way. The rabbis succeeded in keeping control of the conversion system, which will continue providing them and their hangers-on a livelihood. But their obstinacy has rendered the entire system irrelevant and conferred legitimacy upon an entirely secular form of acceptance to the Jewish people. 

Yair Ettinger