Converting Israel's Conversion Law

Conversion in Israel is now a demeaning, racist and cumbersome process. Will racist laws prevent people from falling in love, living together and having children?

Roni Abramson
Roni Abramson
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Roni Abramson
Roni Abramson

The camera pans in on the wedding canopy. A Moroccan wedding song can be heard in the background. The groom is short and chubby, with Middle Eastern roots. The bride is sexy, tall and Russian. She answers all questions with an annoying and haughty “Da!” She chooses this particular occasion to inform the groom that actually, she is not Jewish, God forfend! The groom moves away from her attempts to kiss him, bemoaning his sad fate. His reaction may be muted out of fear for his life since his intended brother-in-law, a muscle-ripped, bouncer type, is giving him a stern look. Hardly has the groom had time to absorb this terrible news when his intended bride speed-dials “conversion” on her cellular phone, receiving an instant conversion approval by fax.

Aside from the racist stereotypes which somehow got past the Central Elections Committee, one could only wish that the situation of new Israeli immigrants was as rosy as depicted in this campaign ad by the Shas party. The ad was pulled from the airwaves last week, but as a woman married to a man from Russia who is not Jewish according to Jewish law, I can attest to a very different reality than that shown in the ad.

Like many other immigrants from the former Soviet Union, my husband has a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. In Russia, one’s religion is determined by the father, as in Christian law, which meant my husband grew up defined as Jewish.

As a child, he suffered severe schoolyard beatings for being Jewish. Once he came to Israel, where one's Jewishness is determined by the mother, he was beaten up for NOT being Jewish.

My husband grew up loving this country, and chose to serve in a combat unit during his military service. He decided not to convert since, in his eyes, conversion is one more tool of oppression used by a racist state rather than a gift. When we informed our families of our intention to marry, the response was “thank goodness you’re Jewish so that your children won’t have problems.” Some were even happy for us.

We knew that despite paying taxes and serving in the army in Israel (which my husband still does) we could never get married here. So in addition to the usual wedding expenses, we had to add $700 a person for a wedding package in Cyprus, where we held a civil ceremony so we could return to Israel and register as married with the Interior Ministry. Our travel agent, who specializes in such packages, proudly told us he had handled thousands of couples in our situation, all of whom were compelled by Israel to take this route.

What about “mixed" couples who can’t afford this gimmick? How can they get married legally? Apparently they can’t. Avigdor Lieberman promised to instate a route to legal marriage for couples where neither is Jewish. But what about couples where only one partner is Jewish?

The children of Russian immigrants in the 1990s have grown up and become important and productive members of Israeli society, even if their Jewish origins are suspect. Some of them have bona fide Jewish partners and some do not want to convert. Conversion is now a demeaning, racist and cumbersome process. Will racist laws prevent people from falling in love, living together and having children?

I hope not. Israel must consider these citizens as equals in every sense, with equal right, not just equal obligations. It was Israel who brought them here under the Law of Return, and never were they informed that they would be second-class citizens upon arrival. I hope we won’t need a conversion speed-dial system, and that couples will be able to wed in civil marriages if they wish to, without the need to convert. I hope that, just like the groom's parents in the ad, people will be far more concerned about just getting to the buffet.

An image from the Shas ad.Credit: Screen shot

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