An Israeli Diaspora Affairs Ministry committee said in a statement that more than 50 million non-Jewish people worldwide have an affinity with Judaism or Israel, including both groups and individuals who could be screened for potential conversion and immigration to Israel.
In what it calls an “unprecedented strategic opportunity,” the committee calls for providing learning materials about Judaism, the Jewish state, and the Hebrew language, and designing a special track for those interested in working, living, and perhaps even converting to Judaism to come to Israel, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported just two days prior to Passover.
Of course Orthodox rabbis immediately attacked the idea, saying that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion and totally avoiding the opinion of Rabbi Eleazar who taught, “The Holy One exiled Israel among the nations only in order that proselytes might be multiplied among them.” (Pesachin 87b)
It is true that in the generation of Rabbi Eleazar there were many more converts to Judaism in diaspora Jewish communities than in the land of Israel. The strong anti-Roman feelings of many Jews in the land of Israel not only flared into two disastrous revolts, in 66-70 CE and again in 132-135 CE, but also expressed itself among some Jews in ongoing suspicion and hostility toward non-Jews who had converted as well as those who were interested in becoming Jewish.
Rabbi Eleazar’s teaching that gaining converts was so important that God sacrificed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in order to multiply converts is amazing. Of course, it is possible that Rabbi Eleazar was simply trying to make the best of a bad thing. But he must have thought making converts was of extraordinary importance.
Perhaps Rabbi Eleazar thought that if the Jewish people was much more numerous (like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach) we would be a lot less likely to be defeated and oppressed by others.
Orthodox Rabbi Dov Lior, head of the Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria, told Haaretz that proselytizing was not the Jewish way and that it was important, first of all, to bring lapsed Jews back to religious practice.
He did not explain why bringing back present day lapsed Jews was more important than bringing back the lost Jewish descendants of mixed marriages of past generations.
Orthodox Rabbi Uri Sherki told the Haaretz that while he supported strengthening the connection with non-Jews, he feared that some of them might be interested in establishing a connection between Jews and Christianity. Thus he negatively pre-judges, and pushes away thousands of potential converts to Judaism because he fears a few Christian missionaries might sneak in. As if we did not have Jews for Jesus already.
But if a prospective convert is sincere in his or her intention to keep the commandments and a rabbinic court suspects him of being insincere, the court causes great damage to both the Jewish people and the convert, and is punished for this.
This was the case, for example, when our forefathers refused to accept Timna as a convert. She eventually distanced herself greatly from the Jewish people, marrying Elifaz and giving birth to a descendant Amalek, who attacked the Jewish people greatly. (Sanhedrin 99b)
Indeed the Talmud says Jews suffered the great damage of being enslaved in Egypt because Abraham failed to give some non-Jews an opportunity to convert. (Neddarim 32a) The possibility of harm coming from accepting converts was only true after 4th-6th century Roman laws made it illegal for someone to convert to Judaism.
As late as 1749 a Polish Count, Valentine Potocki, who had secretly converted to Judaism, was burned alive in the center of Vilna. Even today in Iran, Muslims who convert to another religion have been jailed and occasionally executed. But, in democratic countries like Israel, no such danger has ever occurred.
The Diaspora Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the report had not yet been adopted and that the aim was not mass conversion but rather strengthening the relationship between Israel and non-Jewish communities abroad.
The report was commissioned in 2016 by Naftali Bennett, the minister for Diaspora affairs as well as for education, who heads the right-wing, religious Jewish Home Party. Aimed at providing advice to the government on policy toward what it calls the “large communities” seeking Israeli recognition, connections and even citizenship, the committee presented its report to the cabinet secretary earlier this week.
Among the millions of potential recruits, the report identifies descendants of Jews who are not eligible to immigrate to Israel without formal conversion, like the Marranos descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity several centuries ago; and descendants of so-called “Red Marranos” from Eastern Europe, who hid their Judaism from the Communist regime.
Also communities that declare themselves to be Jewish but are not officially recognized, such the Falashmura of Ethiopia and the Bnei Menashe of India; and groups in Africa and Asia claiming a more ancient connection with Judaism.
The reports breaks these groups down into nine million who are entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return, five million who are the descendants of voluntary apostates, and around 35 million people who are already known to have an affinity with the Jewish state.