Activist Jews Use Passover Festival to Protest ultra-Orthodox Conversion Stance

Moroccan Jewish leader Sam Ben-Sheetrit looks to lend his support to Jewish converts at this year's Mimouna celebration.

Sam Ben-Sheetrit is one of the people who turned the Mimouna Festival into a national holiday, without any mention of discrimination. He's chairman of the World Federation of Moroccan Jews, which chooses a "positive" subject for the Mimouna every year, such as "Every person is a world" and "Bridges."

This year, for the first time, the federation is coming out against injustices to converted Jews and people in the process of conversion to Judaism. This Mimouna (which began last night and is taking place today ) will be held as a protest and a way of supporting the converts, in the shadow of the political and halakhic controversy surrounding it.

mimouna - Ilan Assayag - April 25 2011
Ilan Assayag

Paradoxically, the topic has little bearing on Jews of Moroccan descent but impacts on immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The protest is also directed against Shas, which unofficially represents Israelis of Moroccan origin.

Sam Ben-Sheetrit, what does the Mimouna have to do with the conversion controversy?

"Is there any better occasion to show our support for the converts than the Mimouna? This is a celebration of hospitality, love of man, bringing people together. Every year the Mimouna celebrations are marked by some value or another. This year they are marked by protest. We will raise a cry against the ultra-Orthodox laws pushing away all those who want to join our people. Regrettably, the ultra-Orthodox groups have taken over our lives. Not only the money, the public coffer, but everyday life. They're simply closing doors in the face of all those who want to join our people."

What has been planned for the celebrations?

"We've invited hundreds of converts from all over the country to the main celebration in Ashkelon's Beit Yad Lebanim. My good friend [former Ashkenazi Chief] Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau will be there. The event will be hosted by Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, who converts people to Judaism. Six converts from different countries will tell their story of how they ended up as Jews and mainly how society treats them and what they feel now. We must treat converts leniently and tolerantly. They will be guests of honor in Mimouna celebrations worldwide, we will put them in the front rows and embrace them."

Why are Jews of Moroccan origin getting involved with a problem relating to FSU immigrants?

"How do you think we improved Moroccan Jewry's image? We used the Mimouna to bring people together. We will demand of the ultra-Orthodox to stop bullying us, to get out of our life, to allow this country to work. I hope our bitter cry, and especially the government, are able to stop them."

Are you also speaking out against Shas? It is a member of the government that is responsible for the conversion policy and a party that recently ejected MK Chaim Amsellem because of his lenient views regarding conversion.

"If Shas is keen on the ultra-Orthodox laws and acts in their spirit, then [our] protest is certainly against it. This is one of the tragedies that befell us Moroccan Jews. Moroccan Jewry advanced in huge steps and became integrated in every field, but when it comes to tolerance, for which our sages were famous, Shas' leaders have learned and done nothing. They are lagging behind."

But Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled in favor of the IDF conversions.

"A halakhic ruling is a halakhic ruling but I heard he backed down a little afterward. That's why legislation is required."

Many Jews, including yourself, are received by Morocco's king, King Mohammed VI. How is the wave of Arab protest reflected in the Palace? The monarch's stability is upheld but there have been shock waves and people have been killed there. Is it possible that in the next Mimouna there will be another regime in Morocco?

"I don't believe it. The Moroccan people love the king. He runs all over the place, creating work opportunities. He isn't even interested in international politics. Note how in Operation Cast Lead he didn't utter a word. He is concentrating on helping his people. I certainly don't expect a revolution. It's an almost democratic monarchy."

How do you respond to WikiLeaks reports of Isaac Herzog's statement in 2006, that "Amir Peretz is seen as inexperienced, aggressive and Moroccan?"

"He denied having said those things. I denounce those who attacked him. Herzog and his family represent the integration in Israel. His mother, of Egyptian descent, married an Ashkenazi. Apart from that, he is a member of the federation's presidium and takes part in its activities. He will be a guest of honor in this Mimouna as well. There is nothing farther from him than ethnic discrimination. I said in an interview to Israel Radio that if [Eitan] Cabel and Peretz continue attacking him they will have us to deal with, and we haven't heard them since. We won't let ethnic discrimination become an issue again. It's flogging a dead horse."