Conversion and Acceptance: Lessons Israel can learn from American Jews

The plane lands on the tarmac to a rousing round of applause. As the passengers exit, they walk down the stairs and kiss the ground at Ben Gurion Airport. Flight after flight, year after year, Jews from all over the world have found refuge in Israel. In just half a century, the Jewish State welcomed millions of immigrants into the fabric of a dynamic Israeli society. From hundreds of thousands of refugees that fled Arab countries in 1948 and the Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps all over Europe, to the unprecedented airlifts of the Ethiopian Jews and the flood of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Israel has succeeded in realizing her essential purpose of the ingathering of exiles.

Many people now believe that this mission is complete and we have achieved our goals. But the ingathering of the exiles is not just a period in our nation’s history, relegated to stories of the past. It is the core of our existence, a product of thousands of years of running from place to place, searching for a home to come back to. Even now, Israel is working to assist the Jews in France and Ukraine who are facing anti-Semitism and war.

Somehow, today we have become complacent in our society, attached to the status quo. We have lost the sense of purpose that we were created with, and we have allowed politics to infect our national integrity.

The issues surrounding conversion in Israel have become purely political, hijacked in a struggle for control over the religious character of the State and its institutions. However, when there are 300,000 Israelis who are fighting simply to be considered Jewish by the very country that promised them belonging and acceptance, it is not a discussion of Jewish law or religious politics. Rather, it is a discussion about the unity and security of our Jewish nation.

This is not the first time that the Jewish community has faced a dilemma regarding assimilation and the children and spouses of Jews who are not considered Jewish themselves. These debates about “who is a Jew” have existed since the very beginning of the Jewish nation. When Ezra and Nehemiah were permitted to return to the Land of Israel after the Babylonian exile, they found a Jewish community assimilated and intermarried. As a solution, they decreed that all men must divorce their non-Jewish wives or have them convert. Even in the times of the Tanach (Bible), it was accepted for those married to non-Jews to be converted in order to prevent the Jewish people from disappearing.

Similarly, this is not the last time that we will grapple with this issue. The decisions made by the government to cancel the reforms from the last Knesset allowing municipalities to create their own conversion courts, and the transfer of power of the Rabbinic courts from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, do not bring this particular story to a close. The people affected by these decisions will continue to speak up and fight for their legitimacy. In Israel and around the world, converts are demanding to be heard.

The report presented by a special committee to the Rabbinical Council of America on Monday models the need to listen to our community, and to find solutions appropriate while still adhering to Jewish law. The RCA, the foremost body in control of Orthodox conversions in the United States, convened in light of a crisis within the community. The arrest and sentencing of a prominent conversion Rabbi who took advantage of the system and abused those who trusted him became a catalyst for an internal review into the process and professionalism of American Orthodox conversion. I commend the RCA for taking initiative and gathering a committee including both women and converts, to investigate the conversion process and find ways to improve.

The self-examination of the RCA sets an example that we can learn from in Israel. Over the past week, instead of taking steps forward towards understanding and dialogue, we have moved backwards and strengthened the tight central control over conversion. We are weakening professional oversight rather than improving conditions for a fair and clear conversion process.

We have an obligation in our community to continue this conversation, to listen to each other, and to be creative. We cannot sit by and watch while those who wish to exploit individuals for their own political gain undermine our national unity. We do not need to wait for a national scandal to push us towards dialogue. We can start now. We can continue to tell the stories of the citizens who serve in the army, pay their taxes, and participate in Israeli society, but who are not equal in the eyes of the religious authorities. Hopefully, we can find our way back to our mission as a society, and truly complete the ingathering of the exiles.

About the Author
Dr. Aliza Lavie served as a member of the Knesset for Yesh Atid between 2013 and 2019, serving as chair of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She is a senior lecturer at the School of Communication at Bar-Ilan University.