In Today's Reality, Ruth the Moabite would not have Succeeded in Converting
The question of the connection between Zionism and Judaism has accompanied the Jewish People for more than a century and embodies within it significant differences of opinion arising from a complex meeting of the values of the modern and democratic state, and those of the ancient Jewish halakhah (Jewish religious law). One of the most controversial of these issues and whose resolution is timely is that of conversion.
In contrast to Shabbat, recruitment to the army, the system of government, and the judicial system – all current and relevant issues of explosive potential – the issue of conversion does not arouse much interest in the Israeli public arena. Maybe because it relates precisely to those not originally members of the Jewish People, perhaps because, similar to other issues, it is perceived as a religious issue not concerning most of the public who are not religiously observant. It is possible that the silent majority believes that in any case its voice will not influence the interest-driven conduct of politicians. And maybe the Jewish perception internalized over the generations according to which the recruitment of gentiles to the Jewish People was not encouraged, has also had an influence.
A deeper examination reveals however that the issue of conversion contains many and significant facets of our life in Israel, and in particular to the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country. It must be understood that the issue of conversion is but a reflection of Israeli society and consequently must not be ignored and the apathy surrounding it should likewise not be tolerated.
Various parties take part in the conversion struggle. Those who isolate themselves have chosen to live in social ghettos, are playing a central role. Their voices are being heard and they are proving to be an influence on the current stringent policy towards converts. On the other hand, those sensitive to the converts' despair, attentive to their anguish and feeling their pain, and interested acting towards a change out of familiarity with the nature of Judaism and the world of the Sages - they are finding it difficult to influence policy and are discovering that religion has yet again become a political hatchet.
Those advocating leniency in the conversion of immigrants regard this as a 'last resort' solution resulting from the current Israeli reality: many immigrants' Judaism is in doubt, and they constitute a not insignificant section of Israeli society. This issue affects immigrants from a range of countries, including western countries, Ethiopia and others, but is particularly pertinent in the context of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. These immigrants are descendants of Jews. In most cases, their grandparents and parents were coerced into abandoning their Judaism at the compulsion of a communist, atheist and anti-Semitic regime. Upon choosing to immigrate to Israel, they fused their fates with that of the State of Israel. They live their lives here, together with us and our children – in schools, communities, youth movements, in the army, at university and in the workplace. Most of them have internalized the Israeli existence of which they are integral partners and their contribution to the country can be observed in every field. It sometimes seems that their Israeli identity is stronger than that of those attempting to prevent them joining the Jewish People.
Many of them are now requesting to complete their absorption in Israel and become Jews. They seek to fully integrate into Israeli society and to become part of its Jewish soul to which end they turn to the conversion process. It is our duty to open the door before them without excessive prying into their private lives.
Israeli society is not sufficiently attentive to those immigrants expressing a wish to convert. Already two decades ago the converts encountered severe difficulties, a fact we remained unaware of. We were unaware that some of them had not succeeded in the difficult studies involved in the conversion process; we did not hear of those who were unable to concentrate on the conversion process due to their obligation to provide for their parents; we failed to recognize those who also missed participating in the I.D.F conversion program due to their serving in roles which prevented them from doing so.
The bureaucratic system added its own difficulties to that of the religious one. Israeli bureaucracy has banded together with halakhic stringencies and succeeded in creating an obstacle course which would weary even a native Israeli intimately familiar with local reality and its accompanying complexities. The candidates for conversion have gradually become worn down between a series of stringencies and delays, and opinion has thus evolved among an increasing proportion of immigrants, that there is no point in attempting to convert and that, there is actually no need to do so. This population, that during its early years in Israel made many efforts to integrate as Jewish citizens possessing equal rights and obligations and was willing to undertake the halakhic conversion route, reached the conclusion that 'if they are not willing to convert us, so be it'. The years that have elapsed and the alienating attitude towards the converts have distanced them from Judaism. Others have found an outlet in alternative conversion routes.
This however need not be viewed as the final word. Action can and should be taken in order to change the situation.
First, we, the citizens of this country, are obligated to do our share, to listen and to pay attention. In contrast to the common perception, it is within our power to help, influence and change. When a convert is accompanied throughout the conversion process by a supporting and helping family, and arrives at the Beit Din (Rabbinic Conversion Court) with the backing of people familiar with the intricacies of Israeli bureaucracy, the chances of receiving fair and proper treatment improve significantly. It is not that the Batei Din (Rabbinic Conversion Courts) display favoritism towards Israelis, but rather, that this is merely an almost subconscious human tendency: people connect better with those familiar to them in comparison to those with whom they are unfamiliar. There are indeed families that adopt converts during their conversion process, but unfortunately these are few and far between.