The Inquisition Is Alive and Well in Israel

If you’re a convert, you must be careful of your appearance, clothing and sex life, of all your actions and beliefs, all the time, because the State of Israel is waiting to catch you red-handed.

Susan Weiss
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Bnei Brak’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court.
Bnei Brak’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Susan Weiss

This has haunted me for a long time, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to say it. Yet on the eve of Shavuot, when we read the story of Ruth the Moabite, who declared “Your people shall be my people and your God, my God,” and was welcomed into the Jewish people with open arms, I can no longer keep silent. I want everyone to know: The Inquisition is alive and well – in the State of Israel in the 21st century.

The Inquisition is inscribed in the collective Jewish memory as a body that sowed fear and death, violence and torture. Every Jewish convert to Christianity was suspected of heresy, and all means were legitimate to expose his “true” beliefs. The state put all its power and resources at the Inquisition’s disposal to ensure the Christian world’s religious purity and purge it of those the Church viewed as heretics.

In Israel today, if you’re a convert or descendant of converts who seeks to marry, divorce or be buried, the state is liable to “hunt” you down – to suspect you, extract a fraudulent confession from you, recruit witnesses against you and, if it sees fit, even sentence you to social death. If you’re a convert, or descendant of converts, then rabbinical court judges – state employees whose salaries are paid by us, the taxpayers – are entitled to ask if you slept with your spouse before marriage, and if you immerse in a ritual bath every month and observe Shabbat. If your answers aren’t to their liking, they can prevent you from marrying or divorcing, and in some cases even deny your Judaism and that of your children, putting you all on a “blacklist” managed by the state, even decades after your conversion.

One rabbinical court did exactly that in 2008. The Center for Women’s Justice petitioned the High Court of Justice on the converts’ behalf, asking it to rule that rabbinical courts have no such authority. But the justices declined to decide the case. Instead, they sent the panicked converts back to the rabbinical court, where they were interrogated for days about details of their Jewish life. Eventually, they were declared Jewish. But the High Court thereby legitimized these hurtful, inquisitorial investigations instead of condemning them.

If you’re a convert or descendent of converts, rabbinical court judges and marriage registrars – who are also state employees – are entitled to summon witnesses, send documents for laboratory tests and even send investigators overseas to examine your conversion for flaws. The burden of proof is always on you. Perhaps you were converted by an Orthodox rabbi who presided over a Conservative or egalitarian congregation? Perhaps the rabbi who converted you isn’t on the list of the well-connected few acceptable to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and rabbinical courts? Or perhaps, heaven forbid, you once attended a New Year’s party or joined a Reform or Conservative synagogue?

If you’re a convert, you live in perpetual fear that your spouse will inform on you to a special conversion court – funded, once again, by the public. If you’re a convert with “problematic” views that don’t fit the rabbinical courts’ religious worldview, there are organizations that will hunt you down, inform the rabbinate and make sure you and your descendants pay the price.

If you’re a convert, you must be careful of your appearance, clothing and sex life, of all your actions and beliefs, all the time. For if you aren’t, the State of Israel is just waiting to catch you red-handed. After all, nobody disputes that the state must concern itself with the “purity” of the Jewish people. That’s its job, isn’t it?

No. The job of a democratic state is to protect the right of rabbinical court judges – and of everyone else – to maintain their personal beliefs. Its job is to protect all individuals’ rights, including those of converts. Its job is not to appoint rabbis backed by all the power and resources of the state to conduct a 21st-century Inquisition.

But perhaps you’re wondering what the job of a Jewish state is? Our sacred texts say explicitly that we mustn’t conduct inquisitions: “You shall neither vex a ger [“stranger” or “convert”] nor oppress him, because you were gerim in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). And there are even commentators who say we were sentenced to become oppressed strangers in Egypt because of our foremother Sarah’s sin in oppressing Hagar – the woman whose Hebrew name has the same spelling as the phrase “the ger.”

The author, an attorney, founded and runs the Center for Women’s Justice, located in Jerusalem.

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