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Sunday 23 September 2007

Open door to converts

Open door to converts

As a country beset by unique demographic circumstances, Israel is even
more vulnerable to illegal migrants than the increasingly beleaguered
states of Western Europe.
Yet thwarting inundation by foreigners is hardly compatible with making
it more difficult for converts to settle here. Hindering the aliya of
those who have consciously chosen Judaism and life within the Jewish
collective is fundamentally antithetical to the goal of averting the
loss of a Jewish majority in the Jewish homeland.
Nonetheless, unimaginably, this is just the obstructionist route the
Interior Ministry now proposes, according to a draft overhaul of
citizenship criteria geared toward making it considerably harder for
converts to qualify for immigrant status under the Law of Return.
This is unrelated to the unabated controversy over the different brands
of conversion. The inexplicable bureaucratic hardheartedness appears
nondiscriminatory. Orthodox converts are just as likely to be targeted
as are Reform or Conservative converts.
The focus seems to be on overseas conversions. Under the draft
requirements, converts must prove that they resided in the Jewish
community abroad where their conversion took place for at least three
months prior to immigrating, spent a minimum of nine months in a
preparatory conversion course and joined Jewish community activities for
nine months post-conversion. There must be no history of applying for
Israeli citizenship pre-conversion, of illegal residency here, of
re-applying for citizenship directly post-conversion or of seeking to
bring non-converted relatives to Israel.
The purpose is legitimate - to prevent the exploitation of bogus
conversion processes for obtaining Israeli citizenship. The problem is
not to be lightly dismissed. Incredible as it may seem to some Israelis,
this country has become a magnet for outsiders, who consider it a
promising prospect for improving their living standards. Having been
firmly placed on the economic migrants' map of the world's more
desirable, prosperity-generating destinations, Israel does draw many
from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America who are as mercenary
as those crossing over into Western Europe.
One need only witness the nightly border incursions from Egypt by a
varied assortment of Africans, including both desperate refugees from
Darfur and those falsely claiming refugee status.
Nevertheless, the way to tackle this trespassing is hardly by pushing
away new Jews. By the proposed new yardsticks, Ruth the Moabite would
have had trouble winning official recognition of her Jewishness.
The plain fact of the matter is that Jews don't behave as any other
group struggling for survival would. While in ancient Israel the Jewish
people actively sought and welcomed converts - and grew substantially as
a result - during two millennia of exile Jews were forced to abandon
pro-conversionary attitudes and, eventually, actually appeared to
discourage conversions. In recent centuries, ever stricter
interpretations of the law took hold, in part to weed out the serious
and dedicated would-be converts from those acting on a whim or with
ulterior motives.
Israeli officialdom can hardly appoint itself as the ultimate judge of
any convert's sincerity or lack thereof. It makes no sense to alienate a
significant Diaspora contingent or to alienate family members of Jewish
immigrants already here and wishing to live as Jews. Israel will hardly
benefit if the offspring of these families are shunted aside. Such
actions are not only morally offensive, but also counterproductive by
any practical measure.
If any reform is necessary vis-a-vis conversions, it is of the
establishment's attitude, which must be modified in tune with the
evolving needs of the Jewish people, here and now. Anti-conversionary
attitudes are anachronistic and harmful.
If anything, the government of Israel should be leading by example with
policies regarding conversion that recall attitudes prevalent in the
ancient Jewish commonwealths. Such approaches are arguably more
authentically Jewish than those that emerged during centuries of exile.
By allowing common sense to prevail, Israel would be doing itself a
significant favor.


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