For Rejects of Israel’s Draconian Conversion System, a New Glimmer of Hope

Hundreds of non-citizens in the country ask to convert each year but are rejected, many for no good reason at all, advocates say. In the Knesset, though, some of their grievances are finally being addressed.

Martin Konadu and his family. 'It’s like I don’t belong anywhere, and this causes me much grief.'
Rami Shllush

Not long after he left Ghana for Israel 12 years ago, Martin Konadu married a Jewish Israeli woman, and they had two children. After they divorced, he moved in with another Jewish Israeli woman, and they had one child together and now have another on the way.

All of Konadu’s children are considered Jewish by Israeli law because their mothers are Jewish. He, too, would like to be considered Jewish, but the Israeli authorities have rejected his request to convert.

As a non-Jew, Konadu is not allowed to participate in many important rituals in his synagogue. So when he accompanies his children to synagogue on Shabbat morning, as he does every week, he often feels like an outcast.

“It’s like I don’t belong anywhere, and this causes me much grief,” he says. “You’d think that the rabbis here would be begging me to convert to Judaism because I have all these Jewish children under my care. Instead, it is me begging them, and they simply don’t care.”

Chantal, who asked that her real name not be published, is in a similar predicament. Growing up in France, she realized early on, she says, that she wanted to become a member of the Jewish faith and move to Israel. While studying courses in Judaism on a religious kibbutz, she was notified last month that her request to convert had been denied. Chantal was more fortunate than Konadu, though: She, at least, received an explanation for her rejection. If you wanted to become Jewish, she was told, you should have converted in France – not in Israel.

“But I want to live in Israel and raise my family here, so why should I have converted there?” she wonders.

Konadu and Chantal are among hundreds of non-citizens living in Israel whose requests to convert are rejected each year – many for no good reason at all, advocates say. In recent weeks, however, the Knesset has taken up their plight, and some of their long-standing grievances are finally being addressed.

A special three-person committee, headed by a representative of the Chief Rabbinate, rules on all requests to convert by non-citizens living in Israel. The need to vet such requests arose from a fear that foreigners – particularly migrant workers and asylum seekers – might exploit the system and convert to Judaism simply to obtain citizenship. Under the Law of Return, all Jews, including those of choice – provided that they were converted in established Jewish communities – are eligible for citizenship in Israel.

About five years ago, the committee launched a major crackdown. “Until then, there were no real guidelines,” recounts Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of Itim, an organization that advocates on behalf of those challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy. “But then a list of criteria was published specifying who is not allowed to convert under any circumstances, and things became a lot tougher.”

Among those ineligible to convert, according to these criteria, are non-Jewish spouses of Israeli citizens who hold certain types of visas, foreign workers and Palestinians. But even candidates who do not fall into these categories are often rejected, says Farber, with no explanation given.

In addition, many of those applying to convert have entered Israel on three-month tourist visas. Because the vetting process typically takes much longer than that, these applicants are often forced to leave the country before having received their responses from the committee.

Only Orthodox conversions

The committee is responsible solely for Orthodox conversions – the only type of conversions recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. Non-citizens may convert in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements – although in such cases, as well, certain criteria must be met. (The Reform and Conservative movements, for example, will not convert foreign workers living in the country.) Individuals converted by the non-Orthodox movements are registered as Jewish in the Population Registry. They are not permitted, however, to wed legally in Israel since the Chief Rabbinate controls marriage law. That explains why most individuals seeking to convert in Israel choose the Orthodox system.

The Knesset State Control Committee has devoted three sessions in recent weeks to complaints piling up against the conversion vetting committee. During one of these sessions, a representative of the Chief Rabbinate reported that in a given year, the number of non-citizens applying to convert is about 800. Out of this total, some 100 applications are rejected out of hand for not fulfilling eligibility criteria, and 500 are approved. Many of those rejected or given the run-around end up at Itim’s door.

During the Knesset committee sessions, Chairwoman Karin Elharar (a member of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party) succeeded in obtaining several important concessions from the conversion vetting committee. Most importantly, she was promised that every person rejected from now on would receive a letter explaining the grounds for the committee’s ruling. She was also told that all candidates for conversion will be able to have Israelis they know vouch for them in front of the committee. (Until now, candidates were not allowed to have anyone speak on their behalf, and as a result, rulings were handed down based on little, if any, verifiable information about background and motivations.)

Will all this help Konadu and Chantal and the hundreds of others who have already been rejected? That has yet to be seen.

But Farber is cautiously optimistic. “Karin Elharar has done more than any Knesset member in the last decade to improve the situation of people in this predicament,” he notes. “That being said, the changes that are being floated are only a small step toward an overhaul of the committee.  Much more fundamental changes - beginning with a change in personnel - are needed in order to rectify this present situation, in which the futures of hundreds of Israeli families are at risk.”