In the May 4 issue of the Forward, Nathan Jeffay reported two items relating to conversion and aliya which seem to me of crucial importance.
The first reveals that Israel’s Interior Ministry — in defiance of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling — has held that it may withhold immigration rights from converts unless they have lived in their Diaspora communities for “a period of time” after conversion. A ministry spokesperson considers it sort of a cooling-off period to make sure the convert is genuinely interested in becoming Jewish rather than just receiving the benefits of Israeli citizenship. Jeffay reports that 15 converts in Israel have been denied residency under the Law of Return over the last four months.
Lest one think that this is just more discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews, Jeffay relates the story of a woman, a six-year resident of Israel, who was converted by a haredi beit din and who adopted the haredi lifestyle. Because she held a tourist visa, she was forced to return to her native Ukraine, and convert a second time by a beit din in Kishenev. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry — led by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a member of the haredi Shas party — was unable to tell her how long she, as a “new Jew,” would be required to live as a Jew in her country of birth.
The same article reports that Israeli soldiers, mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish according to Halacha, have undergone a conversion course while in the IDF under the auspices of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. However some of the haredi marriage registrars have refused to register these IDF vets, claiming that the conversion demands were too lenient.
These are not minor hurdles. Those living in Israel with tourist visas face a legal limbo where even regular employment may not be lawful. In the case of the soldiers, minor bureaucrats who have never served in the IDF (claiming the exemption given to yeshiva students) deny marriage rights to people who put their lives on the line in defense of these haredim and their families.
Welcome to Chelm, the mythical town of Jewish blockheads. Israel is always beseeching the Diaspora for aliya, but puts additional roadblocks in the path of willing immigrants, or olim. In addition to the myriad problems they face, olim have to deal with the arbitrary and probably illegal powers of bureaucrats whose frame of reference is the 15th rather than the 21st century. Why does this minority, a group that not only refuses military service but does not mark national events like Yom Ha’Atzmaut or Yom HaShoa, have such arbitrary power?
The answer usually given is the coalition politics that requires the support of the small haredi parties. However, this may no longer be the case. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a stroke of brilliance, co-opted the Kadima Party which, while fading, still has 28 Knesset members. As part of the agreement, Netanyahu’s Likud and Kadima agreed there should be universal military service. Now, facing a coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset members, small parties no longer have the power to bring down the government. The government has the clear power to resist the negative influence of the non-Zionist haredi parties and have Israel fulfill its raison d’etre: to be a homeland for the entire Jewish nation, those who were born into it and those who, like many of the rabbis in the Mishna, came by way of choice.
P.S. A point of personal privilege: Many readers are aware of the recent tragedy my family experienced with the accidental death of my granddaughter, Stephanie Prezant, z”l. To the many who stood by with us in so many ways during this mournful period, our heartfelt thanks, now and forever.