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Ukraine crisis sharpens Israel’s existential need for conversion reform

The state's survival depends on solidifying its Jewish majority, and only the Knesset, not the Chief Rabbinate, has the authority to set conversion policy
New immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 6, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
New immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 6, 2022. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

For more than two weeks now, a devastating crisis in Ukraine has forced many Jews – eligible under the Law of Return – to leave their homes and plan to immigrate to Israel. Israeli officials say they are preparing for an increase of 100,000 people from both Ukraine and Russia due to the economic and political situation in both countries. The State of Israel must prepare for this sudden wave, and our government must understand that starting today, the longstanding issue of “non-Jewish” citizens becomes even more critical with each passing day.

The upcoming Knesset deliberations on the government-approved bill to reform the state-sponsored process for converting to Judaism are among the most critical for the future of Israeli society, and no less so for Israel’s strategic resilience in the coming decade. A legal memorandum from Matan Kahana, Minister of Religious Services, states: “There are currently about half a million citizens living in the State of Israel who had a Jewish father or grandfather, but according to Halacha, are not Jews. They’re part of us. Torah scholars from all denominations have ruled that great efforts should be made to ‘bring them home.’ Closing one’s eyes and ignoring this situation harms the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”

These immigrants came to Israel under the Law of Return, which has been amended several times to legitimize the right of second and third generations to come to Israel. Israeli prime ministers from David Ben-Gurion onward led large-scale and risky covert activities to maintain ties with Jews behind the Iron Curtain that isolated them from the rest of the world. Since the 1970s, the campaign has been open and international, with heads of state and non-Jewish international organizations participating. The goal: to open the gates of the Eastern Bloc, with Russia the foremost target.

The late 1980s were a pivotal time for Israel, with an American-Israeli effort that took advantage of President Gorbachev’s rise to power. The new Soviet leader allowed Jews to leave the Soviet Union, and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir granted permission for them to emigrate to Israel on the condition that all those leaving met “the criteria of Jews.” They were allowed to enter under Israel’s Law of Return and were required to come to Israel, and Israel only.

US President George H. W. Bush meets with Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir at the White House. Dec. 11, 1990 (George Bush Presidential Library)

Shamir was forced to contend with, among other things, powerful elements in the United States, Jews and non-Jews, who demanded that Russian immigrants be allowed to choose their destination. He prevailed in his campaign and, because of his determination, by the year 2000, Israel had received a million immigrants from the FSU. 

In one of my conversations with Shamir after he retired from public life, he expanded on this chapter. In his view, the impact of the aliyah from the Soviet Union on such a large scale went beyond the addition of human capital to the population – their contributions to Israeli academia, science, technology, the arts, and many other areas, as well as their service (then and now) in the IDF. In Shamir’s view, the influx of immigrants to Israel provided no less than a critical population mass that would finally ensure the continued existence and prosperity of Israel. 

Those who make Judaism unattainable for half a million immigrants and their descendants create a situation in which the Jewish majority from the Jordan to the sea will become a minority. The responsibility to prevent the emergence of this situation rests with the Knesset when it holds these crucial discussions in the coming weeks. Knesset legislation binds Israeli citizens in all areas: Judaism in all its forms; the public, rabbis and spiritual leaders, and certainly the Chief Rabbinate, which draws its legitimacy and powers from the legislature.

Open-minded rabbis

Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1888-1959) (Central Zionist Archives)

As they discuss these issues, it would be well for Knesset members to consider changes that were implemented under the leadership of the Chief Rabbinate over the years. For example, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, an Ashkenazi former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, came to Israel during the British Mandate and became Israel’s Chief Rabbi with the establishment of the State in 1948. He was open-minded, held PhDs in mathematics and literature, and served alongside Israel’s first Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, a great Torah scholar and highly principled individual. These two spiritual leaders handled the arrival of this wave of immigrants, who mostly came without identifying documents. Together, they welcomed the waves of immigrants to Israel immediately after World War II, survivors of the largest disaster in the history of the Jewish people for generations. 

Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (Wikimedia Commons)

Like their predecessors, Chief Rabbi Unterman came from Britain, where he served as Chief Rabbi of Liverpool and as a leader of the religious Zionist movement in the UK, and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, who immigrated to Israel from Iraq and was considered ‘too liberal’ in the eyes of some of the Ultra-Orthodox leadership. The challenges of the hour were solved quietly and pleasantly. It is worth mentioning Rabbi Unterman’s words which appear in the Minister of Religious Affairs’ memorandum:

“Great pains must be taken to ensure that those requiring conversion are treated with care and understanding, with an awareness of the spiritual distress these brothers of ours have endured. … God forbid we should miss this opportunity.”

Those who followed this path include Rabbi Shlomo Goren, first Chief Rabbi of the IDF and then Chief Rabbi of Israel; and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The first will be remembered as someone who did much to shape the Chief Military Rabbinate at the outset and established strong historic rulings. With him was the “Rishon LeZion,” Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who in 1973 proclaimed the Jewishness of Ethiopian Jews, basing his decision on the ruling of the Radvaz, Rabbi David Ibn Avi Zimra, who lived in Spain more than five centuries earlier. 

The radicalization of kashrut and conversion issues expressed by the chief rabbis who served later stemmed from the increasing involvement of Ultra-Orthodox scholars in determining the candidates for high office. Unfortunately, Russian Jewry has become a victim of that process.

No documents

I personally became aware of the situation of Russian Jewry when I visited Moscow during the summer of 1956. I served as General Secretary of the Israel Student Union and was invited to an introductory conference for an international youth festival that was to take place the following year in the Russian capital. I arrived alone on Saturday to the city’s largest synagogue wearing a crocheted kippah. I saw a small group of worshippers as I entered and I could tell that my very presence caused them extreme anxiety. Despite the fact that I was a guest, no one approached me and, of course, I was not invited to go up to the Torah as is customary. 

The next evening, I visited a distant relative who lived alone in extremely difficult conditions. She told me stories of the execution of Soviet Jewry’s finest: the best scientists, actors and cultural figures. This Jewry was not privileged to preserve its communal archives. In this one aspect – the loss of Jewish documentation – the situation of the Soviet Jews resembled that of Holocaust survivors emerging from Nazi death camps: a lack of documentation from Jewish community sources to confirm their Judaism and personal situations. And for most Russian Jews, the observance of brit milah, ritual circumcision, was impossible for many years.

During the 70 years or so of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and especially in Russia, Jewish communal institutions began dwindling under the policies of the authorities. The archives documenting Jewish life deteriorated, and many were destroyed or disappeared altogether. With the mass exodus of Jews from Russia, those who were emigrating did not have documents to affirm their past. 

This was one of the main reasons Knesset members gave ahead of approving amendments to the Law of Return that made second and third generations eligible for aliyah to Israel. The registration of Jews into the population registry should also reflect this Knesset legislation. Beyond the humane need that necessitates consideration of the Knesset’s approach and its votes, it is worth asking whether the Chief Rabbinate can legally invalidate Knesset legislation and decide to compel the Minister of the Interior to act in accordance with the Chief Rabbinate’s decision in violation of the sovereign legislation of the Knesset of Israel. The Knesset is the supreme and only state legislature in the State of Israel, and everything is subject to it and its legislation.

Fateful deliberations

The deliberations set to take place in the Knesset around bills proposed by the Minister of Religious Affairs, and the decisions that follow, will be critical on multidimensional and strategic levels. They will decide whether the Jewish majority in Israel remains intact or whether, God forbid, this majority becomes a minority due to the denial of the Jewish status of half a million immigrants and their descendants labeled by the Interior Ministry with the derogatory title “Other.” They are today’s Delta between ensuring a Jewish majority and becoming a Jewish minority. Such a disaster would also have implications for Israel’s relations with Jewish communities around the world and would slam the door on non-Haredi Zionist immigration. The Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Movement would cease to exist.

It is up to the Chief Rabbinate to choose whether it withdraws from its current policy and returns to follow in the path of the greats of a generation who led the state’s religious life for the first forty years of Israel’s existence. A journalist who interviewed Chief Rabbi Lau in his office noticed a picture of one of Israel’s past chief rabbis on the wall behind his desk. It was Chief Rabbi Herzog, grandfather of our current Israeli president. It is imperative that the current Chief Rabbi follow in the footsteps of this extraordinary figure, both in the conversion of immigrants and in the style of his public remarks.

This will prevent a disaster and preserve the Jewish majority in Israel.

About the Author
Efraim Halevy was the 9th Head of the Mossad and is chairman of the Triguboff Institute.
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