For 64 years, Israel has been encouraging Jews, whoever and wherever they are, to immigrate as soon as possible. But today, with increasing regularity, one Jewish demographic is being told to slow down: converts to Judaism.
Over the past four months, 15 people who have converted in the Diaspora, through Diaspora rabbinates that Israel deems legitimate, have found themselves denied citizenship under the Law of Return for one simple reason: They were too keen to immigrate or, as Israelis say, using a Hebrew term, make aliyah.
Israel’s Interior Ministry has long asserted that it has the power to withhold immigration rights from converts unless they have been residents of their Diaspora community for a period of time after they convert. It has done so in defiance of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling stating that because all Jews have equal rights to aliyah, converts may immigrate as soon as they become Jewish.
Despite the ruling, the Interior Ministry did not stop claiming power to impose residency requirements, but it applied it sparingly. Now, however, it appears to be making residency demands routinely — leaving some converts in limbo. Most of the 15 applicants refused over the past four months are currently living in Israel on tourist visas. They now face the quandary that to become citizens, they must leave their new lives and return to the Diaspora.
But even this solution is problematic. Lidiah Bikus, a convert from the Belorussian town of Kishinev, asked the Interior Ministry earlier this year what, exactly, are the residency criteria she must fulfill before making aliyah. She received a response, which the Forward has reviewed, in which the Interior Ministry admitted that there are no final or publicly available criteria.
In other words, converts have no idea how long they must spend in the Diaspora before moving to Israel. In the absence of guidelines, converts who have already moved to Israel on tourist visas are confused as to whether returning to the Diaspora now and trying to fulfill the residency requirement will help them — or whether they have missed their only chance for aliyah because the needed to stay put immediately after conversion.
“It is sad that these people have gone through such a significant and difficult process of conversion to Judaism, only to find that the State of Israel, the center of Judaism today, is giving them this slap in the face,” said Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi who runs ITIM, a not-for-profit organization that advocates on behalf of converts.
The Interior Ministry’s residency requirement affects people who have converted through both Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbinates, meaning that the refusees include people who are full Jews in the eyes of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Normally, the Chief Rabbinate is far more selective than the state in terms of which conversions it accepts.
Bikus lays claim to not one but two Orthodox conversions. She converted with a Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, conversion panel, or beit din, several years ago, during a six-year stint living in the Israeli town of Bnei Brak on a temporary visa. Knowing that Israel does not accept this beit din,’s conversion, she converted again, through Kiev’s Orthodox rabbinate on her return home.
Soon afterward, Bikus applied for aliyah but was told that she had not fulfilled the relevant requirements — which is what prompted her request for details of those requirements. Toward the end of last year she filed a petition with the Israeli Supreme Court, asking for her aliyah application to be processed, and she now lives in Kishinev, waiting for a decision that would allow her to move back to the place she calls home, Bnei Brak.
“She’s very miserable,” her lawyer, Jana Rabinovich, told the Forward. “She has come to love Israel and lives as an Orthodox Jew. It’s very difficult for her that the community in Kishinev is not as religious as the one where she lived in Bnei Brak.” Rabinovich said that the Interior Ministry has “really put her through hell.”
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said the residency requirement was a legitimate way of checking that converts are genuine about wanting to become Jewish, and not just doing so to receive the benefits of Israeli citizenship. “The purpose of [the Interior Ministry’s conversion] criteria is to test the conversion and make sure that it was not made to get the status only,” she told the Forward. She did not respond to questions on how the residency requirement is justified in light of the Supreme Court ban.
Meanwhile, on a separate front in the conversion wars, thousands of Israeli converts are grappling with the collapse of a delicate compromise that has guaranteed them marriage rights despite controversy about their status.
Ever since Israel’s army started offering conversion courses a decade ago, some Haredi marriage registrars have claimed that its standards are too lax. They refuse to issue marriage certificates for any of the 4,500 graduates, even though their conversions are conducted under the supervision of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar — ostensibly their boss, since they are state-salaried clerics.
In May 2010, ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court for an order mandating renegade registrars to marry converts. But the case was put on hold in July 2011 when the Chief Rabbinate guaranteed the converts would get their marriage licenses.
ITIM has since received official complaints from converts who have found that several rabbinates will still not marry converts. On April 19, ITIM met with the Chief Rabbinate and demanded a solution. Both sides agreed that if converts are not receiving marriage licenses nationwide within four months, ITIM’s Supreme Court case, which demands that the Rabbinate censure the registrars in question, will be revived.
“If these rabbis were Sabbath desecraters the rabbinate would suspend them in a day,” Farber said. “So why are they allowed to keep their jobs if they continue to persecute converts?”
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org