In Israel, A Clash Over Who Is a Jew

ASHDOD, Israel — Yael converted to Judaism in 1992, and for the next 15 years she lived in Israel, celebrating the major holidays and teaching her children about the Jewish faith.

But when she and her husband sought a divorce last year, she said, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in charge of the process had some questions. Among them: Did Yael observe the Sabbath? Did she obey the prohibition on sex during and after menstruation?

Dissatisfied with the answers, the rabbis nullified her conversion. Yael did not need a divorce, they ruled, because she had never been married. She had never been married because she had never been Jewish. And because she had never been Jewish, her children were not, either.

“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it,” said Yael, 43, who would allow only her Hebrew name to be published out of privacy concerns. Blond, blue-eyed and athletic-looking, Yael is baffled by the ordeal. “My kids grew up Jewish,” she said. “They don’t know anything else.”

Yael’s personal trauma has become a cause for Israeli soul-searching over what it means to be Jewish, a term that carries both religious and ethnic dimensions. The case has set off a roiling debate between those who see themselves as saving Judaism and those whose first priority is to safeguard the Jewish state.

On one side are ultra-Orthodox leaders who are using their long-standing dominance of Israel’s rabbinical court system — which has authority over marriages, divorces and conversions — to tighten restrictions governing who can become Jewish. They see themselves as defending the religious purity of a people who, according to their interpretation of Jewish law, need to live apart from other groups.

Those on the other side are much more concerned with demographics: They believe that at a time when the number of Arabs living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is poised to surpass the number of Jews, Israel needs all the converts it can get. This group includes secular Jews, but it is led by the religious Zionists, who form the core of the settlement movement in the occupied territories and who feel it is their duty to populate the biblical land of Israel.

The stakes have escalated since Yael’s conversion was tossed out: When she appealed to the High Rabbinical Court of Israel, it not only upheld the original decision but also threw into doubt the legality of thousands of other conversions.

“There is a cultural war going on between various segments of Jewish society,” said Benjamin Ish-Shalom, chairman of the Joint Institute for Jewish Studies. A trim man with a philosophical bearing who relishes any discussion of Judaism, he helps administer a government-funded education program for Israelis who need help getting through the rigorous process of conversion.

Over the past two decades, Israel has admitted hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, over the objections of ultra-Orthodox leaders who spoke out against allowing non-Jews to enter the country. Many of the immigrants lacked the paperwork to prove their Jewish ancestry. Others had fathers or grandparents who were Jewish, but did not qualify as Jewish themselves because Judaism is passed down through mothers. Until now, ultra-Orthodox leaders have not acted as forcefully to invalidate immigrant conversions.

To Ish-Shalom, facilitating conversion has been good for the converts, good for Judaism and good for the state. “Israel needs people. It needs loyal people,” he said.

At the moment, there is rough parity between the Palestinian and Jewish populations in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, according to Eliyahu Ben-Moshe, a demographer and former deputy director of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Because of a high Arab birth rate, Ben-Moshe said, they are expected to establish a clear majority in the coming decades — a terrifying prospect for Israeli policymakers as the well of diaspora Jews who are willing to immigrate to Israel dries up.

The ultra-Orthodox, Ish-Shalom argues, are damaging that effort by requiring converts to heed strict standards. Ultra-Orthodox leaders don’t disagree. They believe that God originally expelled the Jews from the land of Israel because of their lack of religious devotion and that the secular nature of the modern Israeli nation is unacceptable. As a result, many are anti-Zionist.

“There’s something more important than the state of Israel and Zionism,” said Moshe Gafni, a member of Israel’s parliament who represents the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Wearing the customary ultra-Orthodox uniform of black pants and white shirt, Gafni speaks forcefully and with deep conviction: “Unlike Christians, we Jews are not missionaries. If someone really wants to join the Jewish people, we’re going to make it difficult for them.”

Gafni’s view is rooted in his interpretation of Jewish law. To him, there are two kinds of Jews: those who were born of Jewish mothers into the faith, and those who can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are willing to abide by Jewish law and accept the hundreds of mitzvoth, or commandments, that govern an observant Jew’s daily life.

To admit others, he said, would be to destroy the integrity of a community that, according to God’s will, needs to stay distinct.

While the ultra-Orthodox are only about 11 percent of Israel’s Jewish population — approximately the same share as the religious Zionists — they have wielded increasing power in recent years as high birth rates swell their numbers. Ben-Moshe said he expects them to double their share of the Jewish population within the next 20 years.

Israel’s notoriously unstable political system, too, has helped raise their influence: Mainstream Israeli politicians usually need ultra-Orthodox parties in their governments to build a majority coalition.

Over time, the ultra-Orthodox have grown bolder in challenging the Israeli government’s efforts to convert non-Jewish immigrants.

Unwittingly, Yael became a part of that campaign when her husband filed for divorce.

A Protestant by birth who grew up in Denmark, she moved to Israel in 1988 to be with her Jewish boyfriend. Because there is no civil marriage in Israel, she needed to convert to marry him here. The process took a year of intense study of Jewish prayers, holidays and traditions.

“Ordinary Israelis don’t know half of what I learned,” she said while sitting at her kitchen table in this city by the Mediterranean. Like most ordinary Israeli Jews, her level of observance was not up to the standards of the ultra-Orthodox.

Still, she had no idea that her conversion could be nullified — especially 15 years after the fact. In their 51-page decision, the rabbis in Ashdod who heard the divorce petition wrote that “most of the converts lie to the rabbis when they promise to keep the mitzvoth after the conversion. . . . How can one bury one’s head in the sand and continue letting into the vineyard of the Jewish people these total non-Jews?”

Yoseph Sheinin, chief rabbi of Ashdod, did not take part in the ruling, but he praised it as a means of correcting the government’s mistakes. “The idea of Zionism was to bring Jews here. The moment they brought Gentiles here, they bankrupted the movement,” he said.

When Yael appealed to the High Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, she was again subjected to tough questioning — most of it focused on prohibitions relating to sex. “It was all about our private life — our very private life,” she said. “It was simply terrible.”

In a lengthy ruling, the Jerusalem judges attacked Rabbi Chaim Drukman, a religious Zionist who oversaw Yael’s conversion along with thousands of others as part of an aggressive government effort to increase the Jewish population of Israel. Every one of those conversions, the court ruled, should be called into question.

Drukman said the decision strikes at the heart of the Zionist project. “We feel a responsibility for the people of Israel,” he said, his bookshelves lined with copies of the Talmud. “They don’t. They only care about their small circle.”

Indeed, the backlash against the ruling has prompted proposals for alternative courts that would take a more lenient view of Jewish law, or the institution of civil marriage.

Susan Weiss, a lawyer whose Center for Women’s Justice is handling Yael’s appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, said she is hoping that the case helps to “change the system from its roots.”

Until then, however, the government and the rabbinical courts continue to work at cross-purposes — with the government spending millions of shekels annually to bring people into the fold of Judaism, and the courts trying to keep them out.

Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, a major advocate for easing the conversion process, used to “pound on the table and say, ‘If I had to convert, I would not pass,’ ” said Avigdor Leviatan, head of Israel’s conversion office. “The problem lies with the rabbinical courts. There the system collapses.”

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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