Does this video signal end of conversion war?

By Nathan Jeffay, July 7, 2011
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Dolhan's YouTube appeal to have his conversion accepted by Israel

Dolhan's YouTube appeal to have his conversion accepted by Israel

In the act of giving one man an ID card, Israel's Interior Ministry has helped to significantly improve the forecast for Israel-diaspora relations.

A few days ago, and after a long campaign for citizenship that included a web video, Canadian-born Thomas Dolhan collected his Israeli identity card. What makes this so significant is that Mr Dolhan had been suffering since his arrival in Israel in February from a new, hard-line aliyah policy that made diaspora leaders seethe.

Mr Dolhan's inability to get citizenship meant he was unable to support his wife and four children. All this because the state considered him non-Jewish - even though he went through an Orthodox conversion in Canada.

Israel's Chief Rabbinate is highly selective over which diaspora rabbinic courts it trusts in matters of conversion. But this never affected the question over who had the right to make aliyah: since this is a civil and not a religious matter, all converts from diaspora communities were entitled to do so, whatever the Chief Rabbinate thought of their community's conversions. It was the Jewish Agency, not the Chief Rabbinate, which assessed eligibility for aliyah prior to the Interior Ministry granting citizenship.

Then, in February, it emerged that Mr Dolhan and a string of other Orthodox converts were being denied citizenship. It became clear that the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the Charedi Shas party, had started deferring to Israel's rabbinate on aliyah eligibility for diaspora Orthodox converts.

The reaction to the change was swift and angry. Some 100 American Orthodox rabbis signed a letter calling on Interior Minister Eli Yishai to "rectify the injustice being done to our converts, ourselves and the Jewish people".

The reason it touched a raw nerve was because they saw it as Israel imposing the standards of Israel's rabbinate on the diaspora - a red line in Israel-diaspora relations. The Interior Ministry has now backtracked and promised to defer once again to the Jewish Agency. In practical terms, this means that all diaspora conversions will be accepted for aliyah - and the proof of the pudding is that Mr Dolhan now has citizenship and an identity card.

This development comes as people who converted in Israel can breathe easily for the first time since 2008. In that year, a panel of judges in Israel's Supreme Rabbinical Court called into question all conversions performed in the previous decade by the state's conversion courts and, ever since, some converts have been refused marriage licenses by state marriage registrars who consider them non-Jewish. The Chief Rabbinate recently promised the High Court that it will bring its registrars into line, and they will grant marriage licences to all converts who approach them.

These two policy changes - one by the state and one by the Chief Rabbinate - seem to signal an end to the three-year-old saga that has become known as the conversion crisis. But then again, passions run so high around the issue that it may just prove to be the end of round one.

    Last updated: 12:20pm, July 7 2011