Israel’s Never-Ending Conversion Dilemma

Jan. 14 2020

According to Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with even a single Jewish grandparent is eligible to immigrate and become naturalized as a citizen. The result is that there are now as many as 400,000 non-Arab Israelis who are not Jewish by the far stricter standards of the chief rabbinate, which has sole legal authority over conversion, marriage, and divorce. Thus these citizens cannot marry Jews, and, if men, their children will not be considered Jewish. To convert they must undergo a rigorous process that involves convincing a rabbinic tribunal of their commitment to scrupulous halakhic observance. In When the State Winks, the anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi examines the way the rabbinate balances pressures to convert these Israelis to Judaism with its religious standards. Shlomo Brody writes in his review:

Using a term deployed by a prominent Religious Zionist educator, Kravel-Tovi calls the system a “wink-wink” form of conversion. In her depiction, the well-rehearsed conversion candidates learn to dress and to speak in a way that will allow the rabbinic judges to ignore the fact that these are generally Israelis who are seeking the social benefits of recognized Jewish identity without undergoing any major internal transformation. “Both sides,” she writes of the convert and the court, “shoulder the burden of constructing believable performances.”

Kravel-Tovi insists, however, that she is not depicting either converts or rabbis as sophisticated deceivers. Instead, each side is balancing a complex set of desires while aiming for a win-win resolution. While primarily seeking acceptance and a greater sense of belonging, the candidates who successfully completed the process often did deepen their appreciation of Jewish culture, history, and even ritual. The rabbis, in turn, could justify their lower conversion standards by citing legal loopholes while taking comfort in the fact that they had strengthened the Jewish identities of Israelis who do not regularly interact with religious society.

A weakness in Kravel-Tovi’s study is that it adopts an entirely external perspective, . . . without paying sufficient attention to the ideological battle over the impact of nationalism on Jewish law in general and conversion standards in particular. To understand this debate, we should first note an important insight of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog: Jewish law (halakhah) has no mechanism for legal naturalization except the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Get unlimited access to Mosaic: Subscribe now

Welcome to Mosaic

Register now to get two more stories FREE.

Register Now

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Conversion, Halakhah, Israeli Chief Rabbinate, Judaism in Israel, Law of Return

Europe Dithers While Iran Enriches

Jan. 20 2020

In May, when Tehran announced that it would no longer abide by the limits set by the 2015 nuclear agreement on its enrichment of uranium, Europe found legal excuses not to react. When, earlier this month, the Islamic Republic went a step further, renouncing any limits on enrichment, the EU—led by France and Germany, both parties to the deal—at last initiated a formal process that might lead to the re-imposition of sanctions. Bobby Ghosh comments on the dangers of European apathy:

Sign up to read more.

You've read all your free articles for this month. Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture and politics.

Register Now

Sign up to read more.

You've read all your free articles for this month. Sign up now for unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture and politics.

Register Now

Read more at Bloomberg

More about: European Union, France, Germany, Hassan Rouhani, Iran, Iran nuclear program