Israel's conversion crisis was fabricated

By Nathan Jeffay, November 18, 2010
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Israel's converts can breathe a sigh of relief -a new conversion crisis has been averted.

Two months ago in the High Court, a lawyer representing the state cast doubt on Jewishness of the 4,500 people who had converted through the military. Its objection was procedural: while civilian conversions pass the desk of Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi, IDF conversions do not.

It seemed that the status of military converts hinged on whether Rabbi Amar would retroactively endorse their conversions. Instead of deciding the matter himself, Rabbi Amar took the issue to the Chief Rabbinate's management committee, which unexpectedly raised the stakes. In order to answer the High Court on whether IDF conversions are acceptable, the committee set out to review all conversions, which number almost 50,000.

This review had more to do with rabbinate politics than concern about procedural matters. There is a struggle on the issue of conversion between hard-line and moderate camps within Orthodoxy. Hard-liners consider state conversions phoney. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most influential Charedi rabbi in Israel, has called upon his community to "thwart the 'certification' of gentiles in discordance with Jewish law". Charedim inside the rabbinate used the need to examine a procedural matter regarding military conversions as an opportunity to call all conversions into question.

The state has been seeking to block the converts’ lobby

But on Sunday, the state told the High Court that it fully accepts the legitimacy of military conversions, and will work out any procedural problems behind the scenes. In doing so, it appears to have eliminated the grounds for the Chief Rabbinate's review. This means that the Chief Rabbinate will not, after all, be calling converts' status in to question.

Why the state's change of tack? It highlighted the procedural problem out of the blue in September in a full court with media present, yet now it seeks to solve it behind closed doors.

When the state first brought up the problem, it seems to have done so as a strategic way of limiting demands made by the converts' lobby. However, this backfired. Media coverage sparked a public outcry about the fact that converts' status was being cast into doubt, and the converts' lobby was strengthened. It also seems that the state got more than it bargained for. It expected a clarification from Rabbi Amar or, worst-case scenario, a probe into military conversion, but ended up almost sparking a crisis for all converts, military and civilian.

The fact that such a crisis loomed proves one important point. Much of the Jewish world was up in arms at the start of the summer because of the "conversion bill". People objected because it gave authority over conversions to the Chief Rabbinate. In reality, however, the proposed change was only bureaucratic, as conversions currently operate under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, and what we saw was largely a manufactured crisis for the political ends of various political and religious groups. How do we know? Because just when a review of all conversions seemed imminent, conversion was thrown into chaos by none other than the Chief Rabbinate.

    Last updated: 10:02am, November 19 2010