Israel Seeking to Close Its Doors to Converts From ‘Emerging’ Jewish Communities

Position of Interior Ministry, sure to anger advocates of Jewish pluralism worldwide, revealed in brief submitted to Israel’s top court

Judy Maltz
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Jewish new immigrants from North America, who are making Aliyah and who plan to join the Israeli army, walking down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion airport, August 12, 2014.
Jewish new immigrants from North America, who are making Aliyah and who plan to join the Israeli army, walking down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion airport, August 12, 2014.Credit: AFP
Judy Maltz

If Israel's Interior Ministry has its way, group conversions performed in so-called “emerging” Jewish communities will no longer be recognized by the state. Effectively, that means that Jews by choice who undergo conversions in these remote communities will not be allowed to immigrate to Israel.

After years of dillydallying, the ministry finally clarified its position on this highly contentious issue in a brief recently submitted to the Supreme Court. It was responding to a suit filed five years ago by two converts from an emerging Jewish community in Peru who had been ordered to leave the country after their requests to obtain immigrant status were denied.

The Supreme Court has yet to issue its final ruling in the case, but the position put forth by the ministry is sure to deepen the growing rift between Israel and the Diaspora over the recognition of conversions performed by rabbis outside the auspices of the state-sanctioned Chief Rabbinate. The current Interior Minister, Arye Dery, is the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

“Minister Arye Dery has once again proven that he is clueless about the nature, customs and size of the Jewish nation outside his own ultra-Orthodox community,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, in response. “The Ministry of Interior, under his helm, does everything it can to challenge and shame Jews whose conversions or way of life doesn’t suit his own Orthodox-Haredi beliefs.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, at the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the ministry’s position was “an affront to the Jewish tradition governing the treatment of converts.”

“Under the leadership of ultra-Orthodox ministers, the Ministry of Interior refuses to hold constructive discussions with the leaders of the egalitarian streams of Judaism and prefers to deepen the conflicts between the State of Israel and liberal communities around the world,” he said.

Emerging Jewish communities cover a wide spectrum, and 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 encompass numerous communities in South America and 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.

Some of these communities already have gained official recognition from the Conservative and Reform movements and operate under their auspices. The biggest among them is the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community in Uganda, whose members began practicing Judaism about 100 years ago but were only officially converted in recent decades, mainly by Conservative rabbis. Like the Abayudaya, members of these remote communities tend to be people of color.

Although the Jewish Agency has recognized the Abayudaya as eligible for immigration to Israel under the Law of Return, the ministry last year rejected the first-ever request by a member of this community to make Aliyah. Until now, however, it has never fully spelled out its overall position on the status of converts from emerging Jewish communities.

According to the Law of Return, an individual with at least one Jewish grandparent, the spouse of a Jew or a Jew by choice converted in a “recognized” Jewish community – that is, an established community with a rabbi – is eligible for Aliyah. It does not matter whether the conversion was overseen by Orthodox or non-Orthodox rabbis.

Bnei Menashe Jewish community prays in a Synagogue, Churachandpur, India, December 20, 2012.
Bnei Menashe Jewish community prays in a Synagogue, Churachandpur, India, December 20, 2012. Credit: Anupam Nath / AP

Leaders of Conservative and Reform Judaism maintain that emerging Jewish communities affiliated with their movements, such as the Abayudaya, qualify as “recognized” in this context.

In the brief submitted to the Supreme Court late last month, the ministry only ruled out group conversions, but not individual conversions. In practice, however, almost all the conversions performed in these remote communities are in groups. Since these communities tend to be very small, they do not have their own rabbinical courts available to perform conversions on an individual basis and must rely on the services of traveling rabbinical courts from other countries. These traveling rabbinical courts tend to take advantage of their stays in these communities to perform many conversions at once.

Should these converts wish to immigrate to Israel, the ministry said in its brief, their request should be seen as “similar in nature to a request by an entire group to enter Israel in order to undergo conversion in the country and receive immigrant status.” In other words, such individuals would need to receive special government approval – as is the case with the Bnei Menashe and Falashmura from Ethiopia – and would not be eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return.

In its brief, the Interior Ministry does not distinguish between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews by choice, noting that all group conversions, in its view, are unacceptable with regards to the Law of Return. In recent years, however, it has agreed to bring large numbers of Ethiopian Falashmura and Bnei Menashe to Israel and have them undergo group conversions after arriving in the country. These group conversions are overseen by Orthodox rabbis affiliated with the Rabbinate.

A longstanding concern of the ministry is that individuals from less affluent countries might convert to Judaism for the wrong reasons – that is, in order to gain the right to immigrate to Israel and take advantage of financial and other benefits provided through the Law of Return. In their response to the ministry brief, which was submitted last week, the petitioners played down these concerns, noting that only a handful of converts from emerging communities have applied for Aliyah in recent years. These include the one Abayudaya and another member of a community in Guatemala affiliated with the Reform movement, which were both rejected by the ministry. Their cases are being appealed.

Young Ugandan jews make prayers at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda in 2016.
Young Ugandan jews make prayers at the new Stern Synagogue in Mbale, eastern Uganda in 2016.Credit: Stephen Wandera / AP

The two Peruvian women, who are cousins, are being represented in their case against the ministry by Nicole Maor, head of the Legal Aid Center for Olim at the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel. The two arrived in Israel on tourist visas in 2014, hoping to join their parents who had already made Aliyah. They belong to a group of mixed-race Peruvian converts known as “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 over the years, their two main centers being the central city of Ramle and Be’er Sheva in the Negev. The two women needed to convert because they had only a Jewish great-grandparent, not a Jewish grandparent, and were, therefore, not automatically eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return, as their parents were.

About five years ago, the ministry, under pressure from the Supreme Court, published a list of criteria for recognizing conversions abroad for the purpose of the Law of Return. According to these criteria, preparations toward conversion and the act of conversion itself must be undertaken in a recognized Jewish community.

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 lived in Pucallpa, a city about 500 kilometers away. The ministry ruled that their conversion could not be recognized because Pucallpa was not an established Jewish community, and that the women must therefore leave Israel.

IRAC appealed the ruling in 2015, noting in its petition that in such situations where the nearest recognized Jewish community is a great distance away, converts should be allowed to study and prepare at home. The two women were allowed to stay in Israel until a verdict was delivered in their case.

Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta, India, August 8, 2008.
Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta, India, August 8, 2008.Credit: AP