In recent weeks, with the controversy over the Rotem bill raging, the issue of conversion was thrust into the forefront of Israel-Diaspora relations. Those of us who opposed this flawed bill, which would have expanded the official Orthodox rabbinate’s control over conversion, should be glad that our efforts appear to have stopped it. But we cannot rest with this accomplishment. After all, Israel’s major problem isn’t conversion — it’s marriage.
Knesset member David Rotem said he wanted to reform Israel’s Orthodox conversion system in order to make conversion to Judaism easier for the more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish under Halacha. It’s important to remember, however, that most of them are not interested in living an Orthodox lifestyle. They tend to already feel part of Jewish society. If they are interested in converting, they are often driven by a very specific goal: They want to be able to legally marry in Israel.
By law, all marriages in Israel are conducted under religious auspices, whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish. The Orthodox rabbinate has a monopoly over marriage and divorce for all Jews. As a result, the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are part of Jewish society but are not considered Jews by the official Orthodox rabbinate are unable to get married legally in Israel.
Trying to reform Israel’s conversion system, however, is not the solution to this problem. For one thing, the notion that we can somehow forge a consensus on conversion policy between Haredi and religious Zionist rabbis — let alone between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews — is incredibly naïve.
Moreover, immigrants from the former Soviet Union are not the only Israelis suffering under the current system. Take the case of Jessica Fishman, which was widely reported in Israel. An American immigrant, she made aliyah, served in the army and integrated into Israeli society, only to find that her mother’s Reform conversion barred her from marrying in Israel. Forced to wear a “scarlet letter,” as she described it, feeling betrayed and heartbroken, she returned to the United States. Why should Jewish Israelis such as Fishman be forced to undergo an Orthodox conversion to appease the rabbinate so that they can get married?
There are also Israeli Jews who run up against the Orthodox prohibition on marriage between a kohen and a divorcee. Still others would simply prefer to marry in an egalitarian modern Jewish ceremony if they had the choice.
Israelis who are denied the right to marry have to either travel overseas to marry or cohabitate without marriage. This is an unacceptable state of affairs. Indeed, polls have consistently found that strong majorities of Israeli Jews support ending the Orthodox monopoly on marriage.
Israel needs to recognize the right of all of its citizens to marry, whether the ceremony is religious or civil. This is not just a matter of religious pluralism — it is an issue of basic civil rights.
Rabbi Uri Regev is director of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel.