Jewish Conversion Campaign Infuriates Soviet-born Israelis

Campaign by Zionist rabbis, which has since been removed, employs 'mistaken stereotypes,' antagonizes and insults Russian immigrants, says one MK.

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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From the campaign’s homepage. The caption states, "As a child, who did you admire?" with a photo of Santa Clause alongside the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
From the campaign’s homepage. The caption states, "As a child, who did you admire?" with a photo of Santa Clause alongside the Lubavitcher Rebbe.Credit: Giyur Kahalakha
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

A campaign for a Jewish conversion tribunal targeting Israelis from the former Soviet Union has raised a furor among its target audience, prominent members of which accused the campaign organizers of insulting and stereotyping their community. 

The campaign, launched on Sunday on social media and removed on Tuesday, promoted the group Giyur Kahalakha (Conversion Based on Jewish Law), established by rabbis from the religious-Zionist sect, which offers an ostensibly easier alternative to conversion by the Chief Rabbinate. 

The campaign’s home page stated: “If you’re not Russian, don’t click here.” Visitors to the program’s website were asked to fill out a questionnaire. Under every question were two pictures, one labeled “Israeli” and one “Russian.”

For example, under the statement “At age 19 you wore,” one picture appeared of army boots and another of a person wearing sandals with socks. Near the statement “As a child you admired” were pictures of Santa Claus and a rabbi. Under the question “Tell the truth, what tastes better?” were pictures of a hamburger with a cola and a hamburger with a milkshake – milk and meat together are forbidden under Jewish law.

From the campaign’s website. Caption states, "At age 19, what did you wear?" with an image of feet wearing socks and sandals, alongside one of army boots.Credit: Giyur Kahalakha

At the end of the questionnaire, readers are invited to "get to know Giyur Kahalalka – an independent conversion tribunal that for the first time offers individual paths suitable to every convert.” About 100 people have converted through the group since August, when it was established.

The campaign was removed on Tuesday, two days after its initial launch, apparently due to the public backlash. “The campaign stirred feelings I have not felt for years of foreignness and alienation. It tries to turn people from the former Soviet Union into non-Israelis,” said Lena Rovsovsky, a social activist in the Russian-speaking community.

MK Yoel Razvozov (Yesh Atid) has sent a letter asking the rabbis to drop their campaign, saying it insults immigrants. “Instead of forging a relationship between immigrants who are not Jewish and Jewish law, the campaign does the opposite and insults a group that serves in the army and pays taxes,” Razvozov wrote.

“These photos and messages convey the opposite and distance the Soviet immigrants from the activity your organization proposes. The pictures and messages antagonize and give the immigrants the feeling that once again native Israelis are teasing and insulting them. The campaign is full of mistaken stereotypes.”

The campaign is “stereotypical in the extreme,” said Boris Schindler of the Forum of Jewish and Israeli Identity, a group of around 30 organizations of Russian-speaking Israelis.

For its part, Giyur Kahalakha said: “We are sorry some people were insulted by our campaign. The campaign was designed to shed a humorous light ... and not, heaven forefend, offend.” The rabbis said they would make changes to prevent furthering these misunderstandings.

But according to Schindler, “The only thing that was missing in the campaign was a picture of vodka and arak to ride on every possible stereotype. This pushes us back 25 years,” he said.

“These are stigmas that we have been trying to shake off for years. What are they trying to say? That people from the former Soviet Union don’t serve in the army? That they’re the only Israelis who don’t eat kosher?”

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