'I Want My Former Citizenship Back'

"Those idiots have apparently declared war on all of us; there is no doubt that we will win on the battlefield, but it could be that the field will already be entirely destroyed."

The "battlefield" in this quote is the country. The "they" are the members of the Supreme Rabbinic Court, whose recent controversial and not entirely understood ruling invalidated thousands of conversions to Judaism, mainly among Russian-speakers. The person quoted here is not some annoyingly secular person; he is Rabbi Pinchas Polonsky, who even back in the Soviet Union devoted his life to promoting Judaism.

After coming to Israel in the last immigration wave, Polonsky was one of the founders of Machanaim, a center for instilling Jewish identity, aimed at immigrants from Russia. Polonsky, a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and someone who until not long ago represented Orthodoxy in the community, embodies the protest that is already seething.

The following is small episode that also reflects the big emotional storm: This week a friend of mine called the Russian-language hotline set up by the Institute for Jewish Studies because of the conversion crisis. Just after she finished that conversation, she phoned me. Between the calls she managed for the first time since she came to Israel to formulate the sentence: "I want my former citizenship back; this is not the country to which I had wanted to come."

Her hard feelings were not born of the conversation with the emergency line. The Institute for Jewish Studies, which was established on the recommendation of the Ne'eman Committee as a center for studies toward conversion, is on the side of the "good guys" in this story. My friend's reaction stems from the frustration that derives from the terrible confusion. The polite woman on the other end of the line explained to her that it is not clear whether, until now, 167 conversions have been disqualified, or only one.

"I know that everyone is panicking," said the worker on the hotline. "It could be that they are considering the disqualification of all the conversions, but there is also a chance that everything will remain the same, though it could be that they will only disqualify conversions done by one person."

Confused? Rightly so. The "one person" in this riddle is Rabbi Haim Druckman, the man in the eye of the storm - a storm whose meaning on the Russian street is different than on the broader Israeli street. For most Israelis, this is entirely a political story of power struggles between national religious Zionism and the Orthodoxy represented by the Supreme Rabbinic Court. It is the inevitable clash between the Zionist ethos and the spirit of rabbinic law.

For tens of thousands of immigrants, however, this is a personal-collective story of people who find themselves in the crossfire and do not always understand what is happening but feel that the shooting is aimed at them. The reactions on a Russian-language site are sad and confused.

"Can someone tell me exactly what they have decided at the rabbinic court?" wonders a man who converted. "I don't understand anything. It isn't clear to me whether they have perhaps disqualified my conversion. I nevertheless need to observe the Sabbath, or not. Someone please explain."

In a personal blog, an immigrant whose father is Jewish says what she replies when asked why she isn't converting. "This is a question I have been hearing for 15 years, especially from veteran Israelis who don't even understand what it is to go through conversion. - And what is going to happen now to those whose conversion has been disqualified? What will happen with their children? I love my country very much, but it is quite hurtful and insulting to live in it."

David Eidelman, a political commentator from the Russian-speaking community who has already managed to work in the political system from Labor to Kadima, is especially disturbed by the damage to human rights inherent in this story.

"The whole story of the mass conversion is missionary at a state level," he says. "This is an especially problematic approach among people from the former Soviet Union. They have come from a system of coercion and the denial of human rights, and again find themselves in a system of missionary coercion that conditions civil rights on conversion. It is unreasonable that a Jew on his mother's side can choose whether to be religiously observant or not, but a Jew by conversion does not have the right to choose. The missionary state forces me to lie."

Rabbi Naftali Schreiber, of the organization Rabbis Against Conversion, all of whom come from the former Soviet Union, observes all of this from a position of "I told you so." "The commentators don't understand the significance of the ruling. There are those who are trying to claim that in actual fact this is a matter of only a few dozen or up to 8,000," he argues.

"In actuality, it will turn out that this is a matter of tens of thousands of people whose conversion has been disqualified. Our message to immigrants is 'don't do this. Your status will be in doubt for generations to come, forever. Don't get into this horror.'"

Alongside a demonstration that Druckman's converts are planning opposite the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem this week, there will be a demonstration by Rabbis Against Conversion. In both groups they will be speaking Russian. One can find consolation only in the sad fact that there is no more immigration from the former Soviet Union, so the ruling can do it no harm.