Letter to the Editor: Toby F. Block
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Letter to the Editor: Toby F. Block

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“Conversion Ruling Elicits Strong Reactions,” March 15

Despite the headline, the reactions expressed by the rabbis were rather mild. A Reform rabbi noted that the ruling is a step toward non-Orthodox streams of Judaism being recognized in Israel. A Conservative rabbi noted that the ruling does not change the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on issues of Jewish marriage in Israel. An Orthodox rabbi says the ruling means that Israel has ceased to be a place where we can all agree on certain standards. No one addressed the real elephant in the room – the inordinate power several Haredi (fervently Orthodox) parties exert in Israel’s Knesset, where three elections in the past two years have failed to produce a single party that holds even one-third of the seats.

Because their votes are needed to complete the 61-seat governing coalition, Haredi parties have succeeded in obtaining funding for their schools, in which boys receive essentially no secular education once they pass bar mitzvah age; nearly complete exemption from serving in the Israel Defense Forces or doing national service for their young men and women; and control of the State Rabbinate and the Interior Ministry, which set the standards for determining personal status (“Who is a Jew?”) This has caused friction between the Haredi authorities and secular Israelis seeking to marry, divorce or bury their dead. But the problems go beyond that.

Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, anyone married to a Jew, and any child of a Jew, even if the person is not considered Jewish according to halachah. This was done so that no Jew suffering persecution would have to decide between seeking refuge in Israel and keeping their family intact. There are several hundred thousand people who entered Israel, quite rightly, from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return but are not considered Jewish. Instead of welcoming these people and beginning to teach them about the Jewish heritage they had been denied by the Soviets, the State Rabbinate put obstacles in the paths of those who sought to convert, demanding that the would-be converts convince all their family to convert at the same time or insisting that converts become completely observant of Jewish law at the time of conversion. Even the few “Russians” who do manage to get themselves listed as Jews find their status can be reversed at any time. The approach of a child’s wedding or an attempt to register a birth can lead to a search into the convert’s past, resulting in the annulling of the conversion and the declaration that the convert’s child is not Jewish.

This does not bode well for the future of the nation-state of the Jews.

Toby F. Block, Atlanta

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