Open Door to Converts

As a country beset by unique demographic circumstances, Israel is even more vulnerable to illegal migrants than the increasingly beleaguered states of Western Europe.

Yet thwarting inundation by foreigners is hardly compatible with making it more difficult for converts to settle here. Hindering the aliya of those who have consciously chosen Judaism and life within the Jewish collective is fundamentally antithetical to the goal of averting the loss of a Jewish majority in the Jewish homeland.

Nonetheless, unimaginably, this is just the obstructionist route the Interior Ministry now proposes, according to a draft overhaul of citizenship criteria geared toward making it considerably harder for converts to qualify for immigrant status under the Law of Return.

This is unrelated to the unabated controversy over the different brands of conversion. The inexplicable bureaucratic hardheartedness appears nondiscriminatory. Orthodox converts are just as likely to be targeted as are Reform or Conservative converts.

The focus seems to be on overseas conversions. Under the draft requirements, converts must prove that they resided in the Jewish community abroad where their conversion took place for at least three months prior to immigrating, spent a minimum of nine months in a preparatory conversion course and joined Jewish community activities for nine months post-conversion. There must be no history of applying for Israeli citizenship pre-conversion, of illegal residency here, of re-applying for citizenship directly post-conversion or of seeking to bring non-converted relatives to Israel.

The purpose is legitimate – to prevent the exploitation of bogus conversion processes for obtaining Israeli citizenship. The problem is not to be lightly dismissed. Incredible as it may seem to some Israelis, this country has become a magnet for outsiders, who consider it a promising prospect for improving their living standards. Having been firmly placed on the economic migrants’ map of the world’s more desirable, prosperity-generating destinations, Israel does draw many from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America who are as mercenary as those crossing over into Western Europe.

One need only witness the nightly border incursions from Egypt by a varied assortment of Africans, including both desperate refugees from Darfur and those falsely claiming refugee status.

Nevertheless, the way to tackle this trespassing is hardly by pushing away new Jews. By the proposed new yardsticks, Ruth the Moabite would have had trouble winning official recognition of her Jewishness.

The plain fact of the matter is that Jews don’t behave as any other group struggling for survival would. While in ancient Israel the Jewish people actively sought and welcomed converts – and grew substantially as a result – during two millennia of exile Jews were forced to abandon pro-conversionary attitudes and, eventually, actually appeared to discourage conversions. In recent centuries, ever stricter interpretations of the law took hold, in part to weed out the serious and dedicated would-be converts from those acting on a whim or with ulterior motives.

Israeli officialdom can hardly appoint itself as the ultimate judge of any convert’s sincerity or lack thereof. It makes no sense to alienate a significant Diaspora contingent or to alienate family members of Jewish immigrants already here and wishing to live as Jews. Israel will hardly benefit if the offspring of these families are shunted aside. Such actions are not only morally offensive, but also counterproductive by any practical measure.

If any reform is necessary vis-a-vis conversions, it is of the establishment’s attitude, which must be modified in tune with the evolving needs of the Jewish people, here and now. Anti-conversionary attitudes are anachronistic and harmful.

If anything, the government of Israel should be leading by example with policies regarding conversion that recall attitudes prevalent in the ancient Jewish commonwealths. Such approaches are arguably more authentically Jewish than those that emerged during centuries of exile. By allowing common sense to prevail, Israel would be doing itself a significant favor.


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