July 16th, 2010
10:16 AM ET

Israeli conversion bill raises question of who’s officially Jewish

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at a rally in Israel last month.

CNN's Paul Colsey sends this report from Jerusalem:

Angry reactions poured in from North American Jewry this week over an Israeli parliament committee’s passage of a new conversion bill on Sunday. The bill, which passed the Knesset’s law committee, would give control of the conversion process to Judaism to ultra-Orthodox Jews, calling the official Jewish status of many Israelis into question.

The Israeli press is reporting that officials from a broad spectrum of Diaspora Jewish organizations joined in condemning the bill, which those groups said would put the Chief Rabbinate, controlled by the ultra-Orthodox, in charge of conversions. 

Such a move could harm ties with the predominantly non-Orthodox Jewish community in the United States. Most American Jews belong to the Conservative and Reform movements.

The legislation was proposed by David Rotem of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Jewish intellectuals in Israel and abroad have been moving away from narrow definitions of Judaism based on religious and ethnic criteria in favor of a more liberal concept of Jewishness. Israel’s law of return says that immigrants with one Jewish grandparent qualify for Israeli citizenship. While the bill is not expected to dramatically impact citizenship eligibility, it could likely affect many immigrants’ right to marry according to Jewish law.

The legislation could reverse the ruling of the high court of Justice that requires the Ministry of the Interior to recognize converts of all Jewish denominations whether performed in Israel or elsewhere, which had the effect of maximizing the number of immigrants who qualify for Israeli citizenship, helping grow the Jewish state.

There are approximately a million people who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union who have gained citizenship. They arrived under the law of return, but many are not Jews according to religious law. For example, in the case of a mixed marriage, a non-Jewish woman would have to convert in order for the couple’s children to be considered Jewish.

Some ultra-Orthodox marriage registrars refuse to register converts if they think they are not observant enough and rabbinical court judges have revoked the conversions of some Jews who have sought divorce.

“This is not just about the reform and conservative movements, but about the very nature of Zionism and this law is anti-Zionist,” says Einat Wilf, a Knesset member from the Labor Party. “Since the establishment of the state of Israel, the elected members of the Knesset are more important than any Rabbi and their decisions are the new Halakha (Religious laws) of the Jewish people. I am ashamed of those who in the era after the establishment of the state of Israel accept the authority of Rabbis that belong to a pre-Zionist era.”

“If Israel sends out a message that (some Jews) do not belong, even if they never come here that's a huge message,” Wilf said.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Israel • Judaism • Politics

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Muneef

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    November 4, 2010 at 2:03 pm |
  2. Muneef

    This is a sign of the rise of Religious Empires starting with acknowledging Jewish State and then like mushrooms you will find religious states rising every where for several faiths and beliefs.

    November 4, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  3. KERRY

    This is probably what they did to create the Isreali state. Make up their own rules, kick everybody out that does not meet those rules, take the land. Sad the Isrealis can't accept their own.

    July 20, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
  4. slenon

    The ultra-orthodox, many of whom are exempt from military service in the IDF, should ask their Rabbis who will defend them when they've proclaimed their reign of holier than thou terror and forced all the Jews who are grounded in reality out of Israel.

    It comes down to this. There is little difference in the ultra-Orthodox, the Christian fundamentalists, and the Hamas other than the name on the sacred book and the language they use to fend the 21st century.

    July 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  5. Anonymous

    They're going to kick out/disenfranchise everyone who isn't jewish enough? 3 Maccabees begins (technically 5 but why split hairs).

    July 19, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  6. free2comment

    why is it important who is Jewish and who is Not, it seems Israelis don't have such stringent requirements when it comes to who's body parts they use if they need a cornea or a kidney so what does it matter who they share a meal or a schoolhouse with or who gets to fly El Al...has anyone here seen the article about Israelis illegally harvesting Palestinian parts for 10 years up to 2009 when the guy overseeing the operation (named Hiss) spoke out in an interview with The Guardian...so if parts is parts...it seems anybody can be Jewish...I want a condo in Haifa, too!

    July 19, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  7. Eric G

    So, it's not good enough that I believe in the same line of BS that you do. I also need to meet other requirements that you created and believe the BS the way that you tell me to believe it? That's funny. In the words of the immortal Groucho Marx... "I would never belong to a club that would have me as a member."

    July 18, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Smith in Oregon

    The United States National Security Agency (NSA) has unveiled it's latest ultimate snooping, invasive and eavesdropping tool targeting ALL Americans connected to the Nations Power-Grid!

    During the utterly depraved invasive East Berlin era, the East German security forces discovered a very innovative mechanical means to connect to the city's hot water pipes supplying citizens heat radiator's which could be selectively tuned to eavesdrop and tune specifically into conversations in any residents home or dwelling! Using current computer technology, America's NSA has taken that to a new level of corrupt, invasive depravity with it's Operation 'Perfect Citizen' coming to your US Home soon!

    The scope of the depraved invasion on American freedoms and liberty's in America's homes under Operation 'Perfect Citizen' is truly amazing. The NSA appears to have been given the 'Green Light' to attach NSA 'sensors' and 'computer links' to the Public Utility power feed-lines across America. This under the 'guise' of alerting the NSA against a cyber-attack upon a local Power Company's power-grid.

    Americans are not universally stupid nor ignorant enough to even think the NSA cares about how much electrical energy Americans are using although in the past local heavy handed law enforcement agency's have targeted private individuals with heavy electrical energy for door busting marijuana searches.

    However the vast number of American's do not realize how much information is received and carried already on the Nations Power Grid lines. Many home intra-net's now are using the power grid, metro-city areas are adopting intra-net and internet data processing thru home power grid's as direct tie-in's. ALL of the Nation's power grid operators pass messages, and ton's of information in digital and analog packet's on the very lines carrying power into your very homes!

    In the most basic form, the nation's power grid forms a gigantic antenna array which picks up computer keystrokes and virtually all kinds of electrical signals which can in turn relay that specific information to the NSA under the 'Perfect Citizen' operation.

    Sadly, this appears to directly go against President Obama's campaign promises of not allowing nor permitting further invasions of America's Freedoms, Liberty's and Rights which were entirely under assault during the horrific Republican administration of Bush-Cheney. Does this signal that like the CIA with Afghanistan's Opium-Heroin trafficking, America's NSA is no longer controlled by the Executive Branch of Government?

    Sadly, this also signals that American citizens who thru alternative energy choose to 'go off the grid' will likely be harassed and targeted as unpatriotic and suspected of conducting unpatriotic activities.

    Operation 'Perfect Citizen' illustrates the extreme height of paranoia in some of the dark, nefarious federal agency's in America much like East German security agency's prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    July 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm |
    • Reality

      Smith in Oregon, References to support your contentions are?

      July 20, 2010 at 12:29 am |
  9. Smith in Oregon

    Ironic that White Supremacist's in Apartheid South Africa and German Politicians just prior to WW2 passed similar purity and scratch and sniff citizenship policy's. Israeli people will likely regret placing ultra-right conservatives into governmental positions who like rabid dogs lash out at anyone around them as they see even their own 'shadow' as a mortal enemy. There is nothing to fear, rabies only lasts so long and after the rabies has run it's course, the host of that madness dies leaving the community thankful for it's passing.

    July 17, 2010 at 1:27 am |
    • Daniel

      Will likely regret? Have they shown any regret so far? They have learned nothing from history except how to oppress others. Shame!

      July 17, 2010 at 2:35 pm |
  10. Robert Jones

    Let's put a different light on this bill. I am a convert. My wife was Jewish. If the state of Israel does not want to recognize that I am Jewish, them maybe they do not want to recognize the money that we donate to Jewish causes and Israel each year. What can I say? If they don't want me then obviously don't want my money as well.

    July 16, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • Shmuel

      The people in charge of the Jewish law in Israel in no way represent the public.
      Israel power structures are no convoluted that they can be very easily misunderstood from the outside.
      The same way that Ahmadinejad does not represent most Iranians, Eli Yishai does not represent me or anyone I know.
      I have no problem accepting your conversion.

      July 16, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  11. Martin

    To enlighten the unenlightened....
    Jewish law is not tightening, changing or modifying. An Israeli state, of which I am a full supporter, was created which defined its own rules and laws some of which followed along the path of Jewish law and some of which opposed it.
    An Israeli state has no place defining who is Jewish and who is not! Judaism defines that and subsequently the bearers of true Judaism define that. Watered down, modernized, touchy-feely-feel-goody Judaism can define watered down, modernized Judaism, but not the real thing.
    This should not be big news! Being Jewish should be determined by those laws which define it in the first place and the Rabbis who uphold them – not some israeli knesset meeting, nor some mis-informed yet highly charitable non-denominational American Jews.

    July 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • KERRY

      Sounds to me that Isreal is turning against its own people. If your religion is Judism please please explain to me that isn't being a Jewish person supposed to be based on BELIEF. If this is put into place Judism will have very few people in it (I can't even say believers). Very confusing. As a Muslim this is taking me farther away from the understanding of Judism and the goal of Isreal.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  12. Reality

    Considering the number of Jews marrying outside of Judaism these days and also the fact there are now so few Jews in the world, should Judaism now be called a cult and not a religion? Then there are the 1.5 million Jews (~10% of the count) and their rabbis that no longer believe that Abraham, Moses, Noah and Job existed and that the Book of Exodus is pure fiction.

    July 16, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
  13. Daniel

    Are the descendants of Sephardic Jews forcibly converted to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition still Jews? Would non-religious Jews "converting" under social pressure in Israel according to ultra-Orthodox standards become real Jews? Is a state sanctioned definition of real Jewry apt to help Israel long term? Did the Inquisition help Christianity, or is it still a blight on the history of religious belief?

    July 16, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  14. Frogist

    Wait, so if you're born to Jewish parents (both), then you are jewish. But you can then only marry someone who is jewish too. And if they aren't, they have to convert. And if they convert, unless they are practicing to the scrutiny of the marriage registrar they still can't be married.
    Or if you marry someone who is not jeeish and they don't convert, the kids are not jewish? But if you had jewish grandparents you can be a citizen of Israel? Who are the knesset and what do they have to do with the govt of Israel?
    OMG so confused... sorry, but I know very little about judaism.
    But it sounds like most religions, they are tightening club rules to restrict entry which is leaving a lot of people out in the cold... I don't know. I guess you can't change the rules and expect everyone to be kosher about it.

    July 16, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
    • bunchy

      All rules in Judaism are incredibly complicated and have always been so.
      This isn't just about conversions but regarding all things.
      And Judaism is the only major religion that makes it difficult to get it – in Islam and Christianity they want you to get in.
      That is because Judaism was originally an nationality, so the conversion rules are de facto immigration rules, which are always difficult.

      July 16, 2010 at 3:14 pm |
    • Mike

      Jewish Law has been very clear for over a thousand years on who is Jewish. Anyone born to a Jewish MOTHER is considered Jewish. In fact, according to Jewish law one cannot even convert out of Judaism. If you are born to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father you are equally as Jewish as the rabbi with the biggest beard.

      If one is not born to a Jewish mother then, according to Jewish law, the person is not Jewish. In order to become Jewish one would need to undergo a conversion. The laws for Jewish conversion are very strict and have been so for many years.

      So why is it so hard to convert from an Orthodox standpoint? Simple. According to Jewish belief you do not need to be Jewish in order to go to Heaven (i.e. have a portion of the world to come). Judaism believes that anyone (regardless of religion) will be included in the world to come and rewarded so long as they follow a minimum of seven "Noahide" laws. A Jew, on the other hand, is held to 613 commandments and has to answer for every single one that he or she does not fulfill properly (though in reality only about 130 commandments are applicable today without the Temple in Jerusalem).

      Since a non-Jew need only uphold seven basic commandments to be rewarded, conversion is traditionally difficult and rigorous since it involves taking on significantly more responsibility and exposing one's eternal soul to greater risk. Remember, this is a matter of spiritual significance and therefore the rules are based in such.

      Since it is not a requirement to be Jewish (unlike in other religious) there is no reason for Judaism to encourage conversion. Being Jewish is not a requirement for eternal reward and therefore Judaism isn't in the business of just letting anyone call themselves Jewish. It's a much deeper issue than just the perceived egotism of the Orthodox Jewish establishment....even if it hurts some feelings.

      July 18, 2010 at 2:00 pm |
    • KERRY

      Isn't Judism a BELIEF? In Islam if you believe in what they preach then you are a Muslim; same with Christianity. Here it sounds more like they want to keep within themselves and not let anybody else in, in hopes that this "clubs" ' rules don't change.

      July 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  15. Gadi Katan

    Once again we are our own worst enemy, what gives them any right to define who we are? Funny, the Nazi's didn't care how jewish you were to kill you as long as you had anyone in the tree going back 10 generations....

    Time has come to cut off the money to the orthodox and to israel until the government of israel comes back to reality. I will not support a theocatic dictatorship. If im not Jewish enough, then my money is not jewish enough... Let them go begging

    July 16, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  16. peace2all

    Well, this seems like a real good idea...... Create even more exclusion.....make it harder to join the club.

    Having some dear friends that are Jewish..... I can already see and hear the ramifications.

    July 16, 2010 at 10:51 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.