A Destructive Regression

A minority of self-proclaimed guardians of the Jewish people's purity is securing a monopoly over Jewish identity.

A friend of mine here in Brussels, a Hebrew-speaking Jewish woman, tells the following: In 1997 and 2002, respectively, she adopted two children, a baby girl from Nepal and a baby boy from Cambodia. As someone deeply attached to Judaism, she sought to have these two children converted while they were young, and in 2003, she turned to her rabbi for that purpose. Unfortunately, in Brussels, with a Jewish community of 17,000, there is no Orthodox beit din (rabbinical court ), so she had to wait for the Israeli rabbi who comes every two months to this godforsaken community in order to have the job done.

The Israeli luminary, however, was not happy with the Jewish day school the children were attending, which he said was not religious enough for his liking. My friend, quite a stubborn lady, refused to back down. She did not understand how a rabbi who stopped in occasionally from overseas could judge the Jewishness of her kids' school. And so, the ordeal of trying to convert them went on three long years.

I was reminded of her story this past summer when I heard about the bill proposed in the Knesset by MK David Rotem, which, had it not been shelved for the time being, would have given local rabbinical courts in Israel a monopoly over conversions. One reason the government put the bill on ice was the angry response of American Jews. But it has implications for us in Europe as well.

It's not just that the bill, put forward by Yisrael Beiteinu - a supposedly "secular" party, which had promised to find a solution for possibly hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children from the former Soviet Union who cannot marry in Israel because they are not considered Jews by halakha - falls far short of solving the problem. What really matters is the depth of the pit into which Orthodox Judaism has fallen, taking all the rest of us with it.

A process of historical regression is under way in Judaism today, by which the extremists have taken control from the more moderate majority. And so, in Israel, and not only there, a minority of self-proclaimed guardians of the Jewish people's purity is securing a monopoly over Jewish identity. And they are doing so with the complicity of the Knesset. Supporters of the Rotem bill argued that shifting authority over conversions to community-level Orthodox rabbis in Israel would lead to a more liberal approach. But why should anyone believe that the ultra-Orthodox would cede authority to the moderate Orthodox, especially on an issue like conversion? It will take more than a Knesset bill to turn that historical trend around.

According to the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israeli think tank, the conversion issue is pressing for some 300,000 out of the 1 million Jews who emigrated from the FSU to Israel. The latest studies show that at least 50 percent of this population would like to become fully Jewish. Yet, the Jewish state allows its official "church" to make their life a misery. Instead of doing all it can to break the anti-modern stream's control of Jewish identity, it effectively allows a handful of hard-liners to keep the gates shut.

Considered from Europe, through the eyes of my friend with the adopted children, the choice is painfully clear: Play by the rules of the rabbinate if you can and will - or, alternatively, go to a Reform or Conservative rabbi and, in the event your kids decide to live in Israel, run the risk of their being considered second-rate citizens in their own country. The third possibility, of course, is to drop the whole business altogether and live your life. She chose to fight, and won. There are many others who don't. Israel and the Jewish people risk losing them forever.

In France, with the biggest Diaspora community after the U.S., and its own rabbinical court, the ultra-Orthodox have nonetheless hijacked conversion, and the whole process has become a nightmare. This is due not only to the rise of missionary movements like Chabad-Lubavitch, but also to the influence of an increasingly Haredi Israeli rabbinate. European rabbis feel its pressure and are wary that if they are too lenient, they will not be recognized by their Israeli peers.

And so, in France, only one out of four Orthodox conversions succeeds. Many decide to quit, for example, when asked to separate from their companion during the entire period of the conversion, which can take up to five years. There was even a case in which a French woman was instructed to sell her Parisian apartment and move closer to her rabbi's synagogue so she could walk there on Shabbat.

Of course, the real blame lays not with the ultra-Orthodox, but with the "secular" state that entrusted them with the extravagant authority to decide who is to be admitted into the People of Israel and who left out. But I would go further: Even if Israel were to manage to undo the Gordian knot of state and religion, it should not be up to the state to define the Jew and the non-Jew. This is a matter for the Jewish people as a whole, in Israel and in the Diaspora - for all its streams. For the monopoly of one of them, and the most obscurantist for that matter, means one thing, at least in Europe: the loss of a whole generation of young would-be Jews, and the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Israelis.


Claude Kandiyoti is a Belgian businessman, and a contributor to the Belgian Jewish monthly Contact J.