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Israeli Conversion Dispute Prompts Soul-Searching Over Definition of Jewishness

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October 2008

A front page report in The Washington Post (Aug. 30, 2008) focuses on the question of what it means to be Jewish in the face of a ruling by an Israeli religious court that a 1992 conversion to Judaism has been nullified.  
The Post reports from Ashdod, Israel that, “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 the 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. “My kids grew up Jewish. They don’t know anything else.”  
When Yael 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.  
The Post reports: “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.”  
While the ultra-Orthodox are only about 11 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, The Post reports, “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.”  
The case of Yael became part of that campaign when her husband filed for divorce. A Protestant by birth who grew up in Denmark, she moved to Israel in 1966 to be with her Jewish boyfriend, according to The Post, “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 ... 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.”  
The Post reports that, “... 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.

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