Israel to Adopt 'Friendlier' Rules for Recognizing Conversions in Remote Jewish Communities

New agreement could have far-reaching implications for converts considering immigration to Israel who live outside established Jewish communities.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A photo of a young girl from Venezuelan converts community.
A photo of a young girl from Venezuelan converts community.Credit: Courtesy
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

At the urging of the Supreme Court, the Israeli government agreed on Thursday to revise its criteria for recognizing conversions performed abroad in so-called “emerging” Jewish communities.

This agreement could have far-reaching implications for converts considering immigration to Israel who live outside established Jewish communities. Several recent cases involving such converts whose requests to immigrate to Israel were rejected, including one heard by the Supreme Court Thursday morning, have served to highlight the flaws in the existing criteria.

“Emerging” Jewish communities cover a wide spectrum. They include groups that claim descent from the so-called “lost tribes,” such as the Bnei Menashe from northeastern India. They also include “Bnei Anusim” – descendants of Jews forced to convert during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. In addition, they include numerous communities in South America and in other remote corners of the world that have recently discovered Judaism and embrace Jewish practices, sometimes converting to Judaism, but often not. Some of these groups have documented Jewish roots. Scholars who study “emerging” Jewish communities – also known as “Judaizing” communities – have estimated their numbers in the millions.

The Supreme Court was asked on Thursday to intervene in the case of two women from Peru converted by the Conservative movement who faced deportation orders from the Ministry of Interior. The two women, who have been living in Israel for several years after arriving on tourist visas, belong to a group of mixed-race Peruvian converts known as the “Jews of the Amazon.” Members of this community are the descendants of Moroccan Jews who arrived in the Amazon in the 19th century seeking employment in the rubber industry, and who married and had children with local women.

Several hundred members of this community have moved to Israel in recent years, their two main centers being Ramle and Beersheba.

In 2014, the Ministry of Interior, under pressure from the Supreme Court, published a list of criteria for recognizing conversions abroad for the purpose of the Law of Return, which determines eligibility for immigration. These criteria apply to all conversions, regardless of movement affiliation. According to these criteria, preparations toward conversion and the act of conversion itself must be undertaken in what is referred to as a “recognized” Jewish community – an established community with a rabbi. After their conversion, Jews of choice are required to spend a minimum of nine months actively engaged in an established Jewish community before they can immigrate to Israel. The purpose of these rules is to prevent exploitation of the Law of Return, which provides generous financial benefits to all approved immigrants.

Bnei Menashe land in Israel. April 26, 2015. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Most of the “Jews of the Amazon” live in Iquitos, a large city in the Peruvian rainforest, considered by the Israeli authorities to be a recognized Jewish community. Although most of their relatives were from Iquitos, the two women facing deportation lived in Pucallpa, a city about 500 kilometers away. The Ministry of Interior ruled that their conversion could not be recognized because Pucallpa was not an established Jewish community. Lawyers from the Israel Religious Action Center, the organization representing the women in court, countered that Pucallpa was a satellite community of Iquitos.

In another high-profile case involving converts from South America, finally resolved this week in the Knesset, the Ministry of Interior also cited lack of fulfillment of the recognized Jewish community criterion as grounds for rejecting immigration visas. That case involved nine Jews from Venezuela, also converted by rabbis from the Conservative movement.

At that Knesset meeting and in the Supreme Court this morning, advocates for the converts pointed out that the criteria fail to address the fact that very often members of emerging Jewish communities live far away from established Jewish communities, and it is logistically impossible for them to become full-fledged members. They also noted that it is not uncommon, especially in South America, for established Jewish communities to shun converts. So try as they might, then, these Jews of choice cannot fulfill the criteria.

During the special session convened by the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, a compromise deal was worked out to allow the nine Venezuelans entry into Israel. It will require them to undergo a second “symbolic” conversion.

The Supreme Court this morning ruled that the two Peruvian women would be granted work permits so that they could legally stay in Israel until the new criteria, which will be drafted in collaboration with representatives of the various Jewish movements, are approved. Under these new criteria, the two women will presumably be recognized as eligible for citizenship.

“I’m glad that the principal issue at hand won’t be fought any longer on the backs of these two women who converted in good faith and should be recognized as Jews,” said Nicole Maor, the lawyer from IRAC who represented them, following the ruling.

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