'Jews Are Not Missionaries,' Rabbis Attack Israeli Plan to Reach Out to Tens of Millions of 'Potential Jews'

'According to Jewish law, Judaism has no interest in influencing someone to convert. There’s no such thing,' Rabbi Dov Lior tells Haaretz

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
New immigrants from the Indian Bnei Menashe community arrive in Israel, June 25, 2015.
New immigrants from the Indian Bnei Menashe community arrive in Israel, June 25, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Religious Zionist rabbis have come out against a Diaspora Affairs Ministry report recommending Israel to reach out to tens of millions of non-Jews with an affinity to Judaism. The rabbis criticized the report, saying that calling for the conversion of non-Jews is not Judaism's way.

“According to Jewish law, Judaism has no interest in influencing someone to convert. There’s no such thing,” Rabbi Dov Lior told Haaretz. “If someone comes to convert, then it’s a good deed to bring them closer. But to go out and be a missionary? To influence someone? That’s not the way of Judaism,” Lior said.

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Lior said that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and its minister, Naftali Bennett, “could do what they wanted but we have to know what the Torah’s opinion is.” (Bennett, who is chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, is also associated with the religious-Zionist branch of Orthodox Judaism.)

Rabbi Dov Lior, 2015Credit: Emil Salman

“In any case,” Lior said, “we should invest efforts first of all in bringing the Jews we know. We aren’t missionaries.”

Rabbi Uri Sherki, who is highly regarded by the religious-Zionist public, and who appeared before the committee that made the recommendation, told Haaretz that he had met with some people who are descendants of Jews who were forced to convert in the past, one of the groups that the committee has set its sights on.

Then-Interior Minister Silvan Shalom welcomes new immigrants from the Indian Bnei Menashe community, June 25, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“Besides the fact that their genetic connection is not always clear, but only partial according to rumors, the problem is that some have an affinity for Christianity, and sometimes they’re interested in the legitimacy of Judaism as a Judaism that is a bridge to Christianity. That of course is impossible. But if so, we would convert them like we convert anyone,” Sherki said.

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According to Sherki, some of the people seeking eligibility to come to Israel under the Law of Return are not necessarily Jews. “Was the conversion carried out for the sake of the Law of Return proper? The rules of conversion change from generation to generation.... Can someone be converted who clearly will not keep the commandments? Some think so, and some think this is prohibited. In the end we have to decide on a policy and the rabbinate has to discuss this deeply," he added.

Sherki said his own mission was to strengthen the status of people who keep the Noahide Laws and to “strengthen the relationship between the Jewish people and the State of Israel and non-Jews who love the people of Israel and its country.... I don’t say they should be brought to Israel, but to strengthen the connection. Judaism is not a missionary in the sense of looking for people to convert.”

Dr. Shuki Friedman, of the Israel Democracy Institute, says he believes the committee’s recommendations have no chance of implementation.

"Almost half a million citizens in Israel today arrived in Israel, or their parents did, by virtue of the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to Jewish law," Friedman said, adding "although they live among us, serve in the army and many identify as Jews and even live as traditional Jews, no way has yet been found to convert them and bind them to the Jewish people. Before we invest in bringing non-Jews to Israel in large numbers, a way should be found to connect those who live among us and want this to the people of Israel.”

Referring to the committee that outreach to non-Jewish communities with an affinity for Judaism should involve “examining potential joint work in the field of public diplomacy to promote support for Israel and aid in the struggle against anti-Semitism,” Friedman said that to encourage people to support Israel they did not necessarily have to convert them to Judaism.

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