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Israel, Zionism and the Diaspora: Who is a Jew” and the Conversion Problem

A local rabbinical court ruled that the petitioning couple’s marriage had been religiously invalid from the outset because the woman’s conversion to Judaism 14 years earlier, was inauthentic.”

Introduction: What appears below, although critical, is meant to draw attention to issues I feel may impact how Israel is viewed by our Diaspora. And since my entire project is to describe and give warning of the likely final chapter of Diaspora facing another Holocaust, Israel has an obvious and important role in the future survival of the Jewish People. It was for this purpose that more than a century ago the Diaspora undertook to create a national home, a refuge for Jews: the Zionist project.

As Israel approaches its 70th anniversary it is natural that its residents, having fought numerous wars and facing menace even as this is written, should have developed a “national” identity as "Israeli." And as Israelis it is easy to forget that the state's present inhabitants, Israeli Jewry, are not merely citizens of “their” state as Americans are citizens of the United States. Israel’s Jewish population is caretaker of the National Home, trustee for the Jewish People.

Not only was this a direct challenge by anti-Zionist haredi radicals to religious Zionism, it also raised serious concerns within the Rabbinic Council of America, American Orthodoxy’s umbrella organization:

“Orthodox rabbis have cast doubts on one another’s conversions, and the Israeli rabbinate has become steadily more selective even about accepting Orthodox converts who come from the Diaspora. But the idea of universally accepted conversions collapsed completely with a decision of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinic Court publicized in May. The panel of three judges upheld a lower court’s ruling that a woman who had converted 15 years ago—under state-sanctioned Orthodox auspices—was not Jewish, because she’s not currently living by Orthodox law.”

As if the actions of the Chief Rabbinate were not sufficiently scandalous in their degree of callous disregard for the welfare of those threatened retroactively, the collusion between the secular government and the Rabbinate was equally disgraceful. Having to choose between his recent re-appointee, Rabbi Druckman, and the wrath of the Chief Rabbinate the Prime Minister Olmert chose turned his back on his appointee. According to the prime minister’s office,

“Rabbi Drukman is nearing his 75th year and according to Civil Service regulations we are unable to extend his contract.”

In the rush of Israeli life, threats from without and within, politicians sometimes take a narrower view of the State of Israel, a sort of "tunnel vision" regarding Israel as "state" at the cost of its obligations to Israel the nation. The following discussion and the next article pinpoints issues that highlight my concern. Politicians acting out of their "tunnel vision" sometimes fail to appreciate the impact of local "horse-trading" on how Israel is perceived by the Diaspora. Instead of promoting Israel as hospitable to the Diaspora, a source of Jewish national unity it comes across as a "nation apart," condescending towards the Diaspora it is obliged to protect. It is in this light, of loving concern, that what follows should be read.

In 1977 Likud under its leader Menachem Begin defeated the Alignment, inheritor of Ben-Gurion’s original Mapai Party. Soon after becoming prime minister, Begin announced support for an Orthodox proposal to revise the Law of Return to conform to Halacha. The new prime minister had not anticipated the reaction from the Diaspora, invited a delegation representing America’s Conservative and Reform movements to discuss the issue. The excerpts below were recorded by the Conservative rabbi, Stanley Rabinowitz, a leader of the group.

“In 1977, the late Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel. It was public knowledge that Begin had promised [my emphasis] the Orthodox leadership in Israel that, if elected, he would endeavor to change the Law of Return to insert the controversial phrase, "conversion in accordance with "Halakha" in the definition of Jewish identity.

"What's the matter with 'conversion in accordance with Halakha,” he asked?’ To which the Conservative rabbi responded, "The Conservative conversions are in fact in accordance with Halakha. In Israel, however, Halakha is the exclusive province of the Orthodox and they will not recognize our procedures even though they are identical with their own...”

How Israeli Orthodoxy came to dominate Jewish identity for the state is well described above. The outcome of the 1977 elections turned on a political quid pro quo between Likud and the Orthodox parties: in exchange for their support Begin promised to back Orthodox demands for amending the Law of Return to conform to “Halacha.” The cost to Jewish peoplehood, Israel’s mission as homeland and refuge to the Jewish people all take a back seat to internal Israeli political expediency.

“Who is a Jew” and “Conversion according to Halacha:” a brief history (This section draws on the ADL article, The Conversion Crisis).

Until the mid-1950’s the Ministry of Interior typically accepted children of marriages where the wife was not Jewish as “Jewish” both by “nationality” and “religion” as listed on their identity cards. The ministry left it up to the rabbinate to determine “religion” at a later date, usually when the child married. This began to change in the late 1950s when,

“the Orthodox parties in the government coalition demanded that those designated as a Jew must be so according to halacha - those born to a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism according to Orthodox practice. In 1960, new regulations by the Ministry of Interior stated that an individual registering as a Jew by "religion" and "nationality" must be Jewish according to Halacha.”

These “new regulations” coincided with the ministry change from secular to Orthodox control. The ministry would later expand its definition of “Jew” to include the proviso that the applicant, “not practice another religion.”

Brother Daniel: The first significant challenge to the Law of Return was in 1962. Oswald Rufeisen, a survivor and Zionist youth group member credited with saving Jews converted to Catholicism during the Holocaust. As Brother Daniel he considered himself Jewish by nationality. “The State refused his application and he appealed to the Supreme Court.” The Court ruled against Brother Daniel due to his conversion out of Judaism.

The Shalit Case: Benjamin Shalit was an Israeli naval officer married to a non-Jew. The couple considered themselves “atheists but part of the Jewish nation.” Their children, born in Israel, were Israelis but the Orthodoxy-controlled ministry left blank the spaces for nationality and religion on their identity cards. Shalit appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled in his favor.

“Following the decision, in 1970 the National Religious Party introduced legislation in the Knesset to amend the Population Registry Law to decree that individuals registering as Jew by "religion" or "nationality" must be a "person who was born of a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism."

It was in reaction to this new legislation that the government of Golda Meir added what became known as the 1970 Grandparent Amendment to the 1950 Law of Return. In 1981, the National Religious Party and Agudat Yisrael - introduced “Who is a Jew” legislation with the support of Menachem Begin, with the results as described in Rabbi Rabinowitz notes above.

“Who is a Jew” and Israel civil law: While the Orthodox parties pressed for a Halachic base for Israel’s legal system, it was not until the defeat of the political left by the right in 1977 that they felt the winds of change in their favor. The first attempt to legislate Who is a Jew according to Halacha was introduced in the Knesset in 1981.

And the Reform movement fielded a challenge to Orthodox monopoly on Jewish identity in Israel soon after.

Shoshana Miller was a Reform convert who arrived in Israel in 1985 and applied for an identity card. The Orthodox-controlled Interior Ministry refused to list her as Jewish unless she "converted according to Halacha." She appealed to the Supreme Court which decided in her favor. But she left the country soon after. Several additional challenges by Reform converts to the Interior Ministry were also declined, but these were backed by the Israel Supreme Court using the “Miller precedent” and the ministry was compelled to comply. But not so under a different Orthodox interior minister:

“The following year, the Supreme Court, again citing the "Miller precedent," ruled that clerks in the Ministry of Interior were not entitled to question the status of new immigrants declaring themselves to be Jews… Interior Minister Aryeh Deri refused to sign identity cards for fear of being responsible for attesting to the Jewish identity of a non-Orthodox convert.”

The Conversion Crisis of 2008: In May, 2008 “conversion according to Halacha” as practiced by the state’s Israeli Conversion Court (ICC) was challenged by the Rabbinate’s Supreme Rabbinical Court for Appeals. According to the 50 page verdict by the three “appellate" judges,

"First, all conversions performed since 1999 by Rabbi Chaim Avior and Rabbi Chaim Drukman [of the ICC] must be disqualified; second, conversions can be retroactively annulled for those who are not observant [my emphases]."

By fiat the anti-Zionist haredi rabbis supported by the Rabbinate had thrown the identities of tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis into uncertainty, their lives into chaos

This after the rabbi reluctantly agreed to remain as a favor to his prime minister.

According to National Religious Party Chairman MK Zevulun Orlev,

"The Prime Minister's Office has stabbed the Religious Zionist establishment in the heart… Ousting Drukman will cause the complete disintegration of the friendly conversion establishment. This is a pyrrhic victory for the strict [anti-Zionist] ultra-Orthodox approach to conversion, which locks the door for all would-be proselytes.”

Four years later, on 27 April, 2012, the Israel Supreme Court threw out the offensive Rabbinate appellate court decision,

"The Rabbinical Court of Appeals rode roughshod over basic procedural rules and the principles of natural justice," wrote former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch in Tuesday's verdict. "It demonstrated contempt for the special conversion courts, and above all, it hurt and did a shocking injustice to the petitioners and their children."

Postscript: Two problems facing Israel-as-Zionist are clearly described above. 1. The continuing disregard by the now dominant, if tiny, anti-Zionist haredi bloc within Israel’s Orthodox establishment for Israeli responsibilities beyond their own interests in an insulated and segregated community. Their influence far outpaces their contribution to the tax-supported welfare payments they depend on to exist. 2. The failure of Israel’s secular politicians to even appreciate the threat of radical Orthodoxy to the existence of the state leaves one shaking one's head in wonder. And if Israeli politicians fail to even appreciate this at-home threat, what surprise in their passively complicit support of radical Orthodoxy’s denigration of the Diaspora, of Am Yisrael?

David Turner