For Israel to Maintain 'Purity of Religion,' It Must Offer Civil Paths to Citizenship

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Supreme Court Justice David Mintz
Supreme Court Justice David Mintz. He and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party fear the same thing: infiltrators into Judaism.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Justice David Mintz couldn’t let it rest. “There is no escaping the need to recognize people who were converted in Reform or Conservative communities in Israel as Jews for the purpose of being considered under the Law of Return,” he wrote in last week’s High Court ruling.

“However,” he added, “one can only hope that a minority with impure intentions does not abuse the situation, because alongside this ruling lies a danger with unforeseeable consequences.”

What’s Mintz afraid of? Let the ultra-Orthodox Shas party do the explaining. “Danger! Thousands of infiltrators and foreign workers will become Jews through Reform conversion!” This is what a Shas election poster cries out, showing two African asylum seekers sitting on a swing in a public park. Above them is a banner saying “Jews branded kosher by the High Court.” On the bottom is a pledge: “Only Shas will preserve a Jewish state.”

Shas wants you to imagine a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park, where asylum seekers congregate, with a direct route to citizenship, no standardized test required.

The Reform movement’s website says that “Reform Judaism does not seek to dictate to a convert how to behave before or after conversion. A religious, secular or traditional way of life – all are legitimate as long as the convert commits to maintaining a significant and productive link with Jewish tradition.” One year of studies and the Jewish sky is the limit. It’s true, the process involves circumcision, but what’s that compared to what awaits asylum seekers in the countries they fled?

We shouldn’t get tied up in knots over the differences in style and color between Mintz and Shas. He and the party fear the same thing: infiltrators into Judaism. Mintz’s words contain a vexing distinction, especially when coming from a Supreme Court justice, between people with pure and people with impure intentions. After all, he’s not speaking as a clergyman. Anything relating to the religious debate regarding the Reform movement won’t be settled in an Israeli court, or even in the legislature. The court did well in distinguishing between the religious and the civil.

So, with which yardstick does Mintz measure the purity of intentions of people seeking to convert in the context of the Law of Return? What ideal lifestyle does he imagine when making purity of intentions a relevant bar?

Are the motives of generations upon generations of Jews who converted because they were persecuted less pure in his eyes? Are the motives of people who converted to start a family less pure? What do the people Mintz envisages look like, people whose process of making life decisions is pure, their choices legitimate?

It seems that only people with no economic or political constraints in their lives could meet Mintz’s standards of purity. Could one wonder what’s so pure about Mintz’s belonging to the Jewish religion if he was born into it?

The Orthodox, and anyone who worries about converts using Reform or Conservative pathways to receive an Israeli equivalent of the Green Card, must offer an alternative path for acquiring citizenship, as exists in other Western countries. If Shas is worried that the Reform pathway will appeal to asylum seekers – a pathway closed for now to illegal immigrants – it must ensure that Israel affords them protection enshrined in law.

You can’t block all routes to Israeli citizenship that don’t involve conversion and then cry about people trying to “infiltrate” into our religion. You want to maintain religious purity? Well, provide civil alternatives.

But to do so, Israel must tackle the real issue, something it refuses to confront. Not who is a Jew, but who is an Israeli. But then it will find itself face to face with the real “other” that threatens its identity: the Arab citizens of this country and the Palestinians.

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