A couple stands under the chuppah in one of Shas’ election ads. She’s Marina, a tall blond with an exaggerated Russian accent. The groom, an identifiably Israeli Jew of likely Middle Eastern origin, remains nameless.
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During the ceremony, the bride fiddles with a fax machine she received as a gift from “Beiteinu,” referring to Avidgor Lieberman’s political party, Israel Beiteinu. “Dial star for 'conversion' and receive a confirmation,” she explains in rhyming Hebrew to her naive groom who is stunned to discover she’s not Jewish.
He regains his composure and, when the conversion certificate arrives via fax, refuses to kiss her. The message: Shas opposes fast-track state conversions. Lieberman represents a gentile state while Shas represents a state with a soul.
Provocation is legitimate in election ads, and a religious party is certainly entitled to target its rival if, for example, the evil King Antiochus issues a decree to destroy the Jews. But it's something quite different to incite against a minority and exploit public ignorance about the conversion process.
Shas’ campaign spot is remarkable in its hatred of Russians, Russian women and perhaps women in general. In principle it incites against one of the least connected groups in Israel – a third of a million new immigrants who arrived in Israel as part of the Law of Return but who are not considered Jews according to traditional Jewish law. In addition, there are tens of thousands who have put faith in the rabbinic establishment and line up at the Rabbinate’s gates to convert.
This demographic group has no mouthpiece, no representatives and no lobby. Even the African migrants in Israel have more honest political advocates than the 320,000 Russians with no access to religious services in Israel. These Russian-Israelis cannot have Jewish marriages or burials in Jewish cemeteries, and thousands of converts will forever be considered conditional Jews at best.
That's especially ironic considering that Shas is entrusted with managing the conversion process in Israel (Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who oversees the process, is a student of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef). Their claim that Yisrael Beiteinu is devising a hollow forgery of conversion is exactly the same claim that the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox used to lob at Shas.
And remember that two years ago Shas was forced to recognize army conversions, which Amar hesitated to support because the Ashkenazi rabbis opposed them. Only with his back to the wall, when the High Court of Justice threatened to intervene, did Rabbi Yosef give the green light to Rabbi Amar and signed with his own hand.
The Ashkenazim claimed, and continue to claim, that Shas is a conversion ladder. According to Rabbi Seth Farber, of the Orthodox conversion advocacy group Itim, it is ironic that the party of the Chief Rabbi who signed off on these conversions is now casting doubt on them.
Shas announced it would continue to air the ad today, despite a call by MK Nino Abesadze (Labor) to disqualify it. Shas party officials said the ad does not hurt anyone and is supposed to illustrate the danger of a Likud Beiteinu-Lapid-Livni coalition.
One good thing could come out of the controversy: perhaps the conversion crisis, which continues to deepen in the Netanyahu-Shas era, will finally make its way to the national agenda.