Shas' Cynical Use of Conversion Shows Why Israel Needs to Divorce Politics and Religion

The Jewish character of the State of Israel cannot be held hostage by the type of Orthodoxy now represented in the government. We need to re-imagine Jewish life, based on an idea of halakha that is inclusive and enabling, not demeaning and power-hungry.

Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber
Rabbi Seth Farber
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Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber
Rabbi Seth Farber

Shas' cynical campaign ad that was aired last week illustrates – perhaps more graphically than ever – that religious and Jewish values are simply tools that can be used to advance political concerns. This should worry every Jew, both in Israel and the Diaspora.

In the ad, a Russian bride and her groom find themselves under a chuppah with a fax machine. When the groom inquires as to the purpose of the fax, the bride responds that she is waiting for her conversion certification, which can be obtained simply by dialing "*conversion." As the ad fades, the bride receives her certificate, but the groom is repulsed. It then cuts to a slogan that says Shas will protect Jewish tradition.

The ad has two backgrounds: the demographic challenge to Israel’s Jewish character on the one hand, and the upcoming elections on the other. Over the past 25 years, more than a million immigrants from the Soviet Union have made aliya under the Law of Return and at least 327,000 of them are not Jewish in the eyes of the Orthodox halakha. Because of this, they are for the most part, denied the right to be married in Israel. Since 2004, the Prime Minister’s Office has overseen a conversion program for those seeking an Orthodox conversion. In 2010, ITIM sued the Chief Rabbinate in Israel’s Supreme Court, to insure that those who finalized the conversion process would be certified to be married.

In the days preceding the election, Shas is attempting to win away votes from Likud-Beiteinu, which has a strong Russian presence, by ridiculing the way in which conversion in accomplished in Israel (in the minds of the producers of the ad – much too easily).

That a religious act can be manipulated for political gains is nothing new in Israeli society. But Shas has crossed red lines in this ad with its blatant racist undertones, and this tone actually conflicts with their own stated values.

Let’s begin with the ad’s strapline: Shas will protect Jewish tradition. Really? Jewish tradition is exceptionally critical of ridiculing the convert. It demands we express the historical consciousness and awareness of the vulnerability of strangers. The touchstone of Jewish tradition is that we protect the other because we know what it means to be persecuted. Is ridiculing the Russian community in general and the convert community in particular a good demonstration of Shas' protection of Jewish values?

When I was interviewed with Shas MK Yitzchak Vaknin on the radio last week, he said: “We didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but, you know, this is a political campaign.” Really, Rabbi Vaknin? Since when does the ends of differentiating your party justify the means of humiliating tens of thousands of immigrants and converts? Do you not remember that the overwhelming majority of your voters were once immigrants themselves?

The politicization of conversion even goes against Shas’s own values. Following the ITIM lawsuit, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas wrote a strong letter certifying all the conversions that took place through the national conversion authority. The ad isn’t only a stab in the back to the Russians. It shows how the Shas campaign staff is treating their spiritual leader like a puppet.

Conversion, and worse, converts, have become a trading card for those seeking more power. Likud-Beitenu – in response to the ad – promptly reminded the public about the conversion bill from 2010, another cynical attempt to mobilize religion to further political ambitions. That bill, which is now waiting in committee, would have given the Chief Rabbinate even more power than it presently has. But in the name of petty politics, religious issues are basic currency.

The time has come to divorce politics and religion in Israel. Tens of thousands of legitimate converts cannot continue to have their status questioned based on political expediency. Two weeks ago, Shas ministers noted how sympathetic they were to the plight of converts. Now they are demeaning them. Religion can no longer be a handmaiden to political power.

Shas agreed to pull the ad soon after it was released, after ITIM petitioned the Central Elections Commission. But the damage was done, and converts again were rattled. Even if we can reassure those who converted and heal their scars from this latest round, there still remains an overwhelming sense that something bigger must happen.

The Jewish character of the State of Israel cannot be held hostage by the type of Orthodoxy now represented in the government. We – as a Jewish people – need to re-imagine Jewish life in Israel and around the world. As an Orthodox rabbi, I believe that halakha need not present obstacles to the national aspirations of the Jewish people. The halakha I am referring to is inclusive and embracing, enabling and understanding. It isn’t used cynically for power, and it doesn’t demean the other, for some less noble goal.

Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber is the director of ITIM: Resources and Advocacy for Jewish Life and the Rabbi of Kehillat Netivot in Raanana.

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