The strict ultra-Orthodox rabbis are winning the debate over conversion, or so it seems. But this is a pyrrhic victory. The more the ultra-Orthodox take control of conversion, the more conversion becomes irrelevant. People who find the religious door to the Jewish people closed will come in through the civil and secular door, over which the rabbis have no control: The door to integration into Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israeli society. This door is not mentioned in any law but exists in Israel's social and cultural reality. This reality is stronger than the High Rabbinical Court.
Mass immigration from countries with a high rate of intermarriage inevitably means that many non-Jews under rabbinical law come here. Many of these people are sons or daughters of Jewish fathers, have Jewish surnames, have often seen themselves as Jewish and have even suffered from anti-Semitism. The Law of Return, however, applies to many others because of family ties to Jews who did not have any significant Jewish identity or awareness before they came to Israel.
What happens to the ones who fail under rabbinical law, from the moment they arrive? The vast majority of them want to become part of the Jewish Israeli majority here; over time they achieve this in a process that has become known as "sociological conversion."
They live here as an integral part of society, they speak Hebrew, their day of rest is Saturday, the calendar they live by includes the Jewish holidays, and Independence Day is their national holiday. Their children attend Hebrew-language schools, and when they complete their studies they enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. They adopt many elements of Israeli Jewish culture, including celebrating the Jewish holidays - which is not dictated by rabbinical law.
Most of them fully identify with the state: If there is a problem, it has to do with excess patriotism to the point of nationalism, not with its absence. In this they are no different from Jewish immigrants from the same places or previous immigration waves. In the next generation, it is reasonable to assume that this too shall pass. Experience suggests that over time successful integration into Israeli society also means a moderation of political views.
If these individuals do not belong to the same people as Israel's Jewish majority, to which people do they belong? They received citizenship in the Jewish state upon arrival. They do not belong to any national minority. The "nationality" line on the Israeli identity card has been scrapped. What remains is the registration of nationality in the Interior Ministry's population registry; it is ridiculous to argue that this determines national identity.
True, when they wish to marry the rabbinate reminds them that they are not Jewish under rabbinical law. This does not mean they do not marry. They get married in Cyprus, register as married at the Interior Ministry, and like many other Israelis, they get angry, rightly, at the religious establishment.
The absence of civil marriage is a nuisance to them and a blow to their rights; it is not an obstacle to their integration. On the contrary, anger at the religious establishment is an important cultural marker of Israeli Jewish society. This is also a kind of integration.
In the Israeli reality, it is no longer true that the only way to join the Jewish people is to adopt the Jewish religion.
The situation in a sovereign state must be different on this issue from Diaspora communities, and indeed, it is different. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis are doing their thing, and the reality is doing its. We'll see who wins.