Does Israel Discriminate Against non-Orthodox Converts When Approving Immigration?

Officially, Israel's Law of Return recognizes all Jews of choice, regardless of their affiliation. But recent cases involving converts who immigrated begs the question: Is the law upheld in practice?

Rami Shlush

Nine Jews of choice from Venezuela are told they cannot immigrate to Israel because their conversions are not valid.  Eventually, their case is heard in the Knesset and a compromise is reached: They can move to Israel provided that they undergo a second “symbolic” conversion beforehand – just to be on the safe side. All nine of them, incidentally, were converted by Conservative rabbis.

Five Jews of choice from Uganda, members of the Abayudaya community, apply for student visas so that they can participate in a study abroad program in Israel. Their visa applications are held up in the Ministry of Interior for three years, as officials deliberate over whether they qualify as members of a “recognized” Jewish community. Eventually, their visas are approved, but only after the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs intervene on their behalf. All five of them, incidentally, were converted by Conservative rabbis.

Deportation orders are issued against two women from Peru, who came to Israel several years ago on tourist visas, after having converted. The grounds for deportation are that their conversions were not valid. The case reaches the Supreme Court, where a ruling is handed down in their favor. Both women, incidentally, were converted by Conservative rabbis.

Like those born into the Jewish faith, converts are eligible to immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Officially, the law recognizes all Jews of choice, regardless of their affiliation, so long as the rabbis who converted them are recognized by their respective movements. But all three of these cases, resolved in recent weeks, seem to beg the question: Could it be that in practice, Israel’s immigration authorities discriminate against non-Orthodox converts? 

A review of some of the high-profile cases of recent years involving converts who immigrated, or at least tried to immigrate, would suggest that they do. Two years ago, following a drawn-out legal battle, the Ministry of Interior agreed to recognize a large African-American family of converts as citizens of Israel. Members of the Mosley family had been converted by a Reform rabbi in Kansas before moving to Israel, where they had joined a Conservative synagogue. But the Ministry of Interior challenged their conversions, and citing “serious doubts” about the process, ordered the entire family deported. It was this case that prompted the Supreme Court to demand that the Ministry of Interior publish a full list of criteria for recognizing conversions performed abroad.

Members of the Abayudaya community pray in Mbale, eastern Uganda.
Stephen Wandera/AP

Another African-American convert whose case has yet to be resolved is Adi Quick, a mother of five, originally from Texas, who came to Israel on a trial trip a few years ago with her second husband, who is Israeli. Quick, who was converted by a Conservative rabbi, has yet to be granted Israeli citizenship and lives under the constant threat of deportation. The Ministry of Interior has called into question her commitment to Judaism because she does not attend synagogue regularly. Quick has countered that attending synagogue regularly is out of the question for her because one of her children is severely autistic and unable to sit quietly for the hours required during services. 

In another case, a woman converted in Guatemala by a Reform rabbi from Canada was kept on hold for years before her application to immigrate to Israel was finally approved – and then, only after the Israel Religious Advocacy Center, a non-profit by the Reform movement, intervened on her behalf.

“It was unbelievable,” recounts Elyse Goldstein, the rabbi who converted this woman. “We got questioned on every little thing, and it just seemed that our answers never satisfied the Israeli officials. I’d never experienced anything like that before.”

If Israel does indeed discriminate against non-Orthodox converts, there are several factors that could explain why.  For the better part of the past three decades, the Ministry of Interior, which approves all visa and immigration requests, has been under the control of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Orthodoxy is also the only form of Judaism officially sanctioned by the state. Although the state was forced by the Supreme Court to allow non-Orthodox converts to immigrate under the Law of Return, that doesn’t mean that they are treated equally once they arrive and obtained their citizenship. Non-Orthodox converts cannot wed in Israel because the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate, the only institution authorized to approve Jewish marriages in the country, will not officiate at such weddings. By the same token, non-Orthodox converts cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries. 

Still, Goldstein does not believe it was her convert’s Reform conversion that raised a red flag, but rather, the fact that she was a person of color. “I’ve had many of my congregants make aliyah with no problem whatsoever,” notes the founder and spiritual director of The Shul in downtown Toronto. “The difference was that all of the others were white.”

The Ministry of Interior categorically denies it discriminates against converts of color, just as it categorically denies applying different standards to non-Orthodox converts. “As a rule, when visa applications are rejected, it is because the conversions did not fulfill our criteria,” a ministry spokeswoman said. 

A young member of the converted Venezuelan Jewish community.
Courtesy

So what are those criteria? First published in 2014, the criteria were created in order to prevent abuse of the system. The Law of Return confers many financial and other benefits on those deemed eligible to immigrate to Israel. Concerned that some individuals – particular from poor, far-flung corners of the world – might convert to Judaism in order to take advantage of these benefits, the Ministry of Interior wanted to make sure that certain standards were upheld. 

The criteria require, for example, a minimum of 300 hours of Jewish study prior to conversion. They require nine months of membership in a “recognized,” or established, Jewish community during the conversion process and an additional nine months after completing it. 

In many cases, the grounds for rejecting visa applications are that the conversions were not performed in a recognized Jewish community, but rather in emerging communities in Latin America and Africa. That might explain why many of those converts rejected happened to be people of color.

“When we’re talking about converts from emerging Jewish communities, it’s equally difficult for everyone – and it doesn’t matter whether the conversions were done by Orthodox, Conservative or Reform rabbis,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates for Jews of choice living in Israel, primarily those converted by the Orthodox movement.

But outside those emerging communities, he argues, not only don’t Orthodox converts enjoy preferential status, they actually have a harder time than non-Orthodox converts obtaining approval for immigration. “When it comes to determining whether Conservative and Reform conversions are valid, the Israeli government has where to go to find out – the umbrella organizations of these movements,” he notes. “But when it comes to Orthodox conversions, there is no such address, so for lack of anywhere else to go, they ask the Chief Rabbinate, and that’s why so many Orthodox conversions are rejected.” 

Indeed, in recent years, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which tends to adhere to very stringent rules of Orthodoxy, has rejected many conversions overseen by Orthodox rabbis it deems too liberal.

As an example, Farber cites the case of Thomas Dohlan, a Canadian married to an Israeli woman whose request to immigrate to Israel was rejected by the Ministry of Interior six years ago because the Orthodox rabbi who converted him was not recognized by Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Had he been converted by a Conservative or Reform rabbi in Canada, Farber argues, no questions would have been asked.

Only a small fraction of those applying for immigration visas to Israel in a given year are converts. In cases where the converting rabbis are well known and the minimum requirements for Jewish study and communal life engagement have been fulfilled, the Jewish Agency approves the requests without involving the Ministry of Interior. Only when questions emerge regarding the validity of conversions is the Ministry of Interior brought in for consultation. According to figures obtained by Haaretz, roughly 60 percent of all the files forwarded to the Ministry of Interior by the Jewish Agency – a few hundred every year – involve Reform and Conservative conversions.

Nicole Maor, an attorney with IRAC, has represented many of those converts rejected by Israel. Based on her experience, she says, non-Orthodox converts are not treated any worse than Orthodox converts when it comes to determining eligibility for Israeli citizenship. “They all get the same run-around,” she says. “You could say that they are considered guilty until proven innocent.”

The main problem, she believes, is that the Ministry of Interior’s criteria do not take into account extenuating circumstances. Such circumstances would include the precarious security situation in Venezuela, which prevented the group of nine converts recently approved for immigration from attending prayer services regularly at a synagogue in a recognized Jewish community located hours away. Such circumstances would also include a special-needs child who prevents a parent from attending synagogue regularly, as in the case of Adi Quick. 

“The criteria were supposed to be guidelines,” says Maor, “not actual laws, but the Ministry of Interior tends to forget that.”