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Big Data On ‘Who Is A Jew’ Angers Rabbis Here

Big Data On ‘Who Is A Jew’ Angers Rabbis Here

Leaders here cite privacy concerns as Israel plans international database for marriages.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's  congregational arm, will step down next June. Courtesy
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's congregational arm, will step down next June. Courtesy

Jerusalem — Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has already created controversy over its microscopic scrutiny of couples wishing to marry in Israel.

Now, news that the Ministry of Religious Affairs is in the process of creating a database that eventually could include every Jew in the world for purposes of expediting marriage registration in Israel is creating even more controversy, with leading rabbis in New York raising bright red flags.

Two weeks ago, during an Italy-based conference sponsored by the European Conference of Rabbis, Rabbi Hezekiah Samin, who heads the marriage department of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, revealed that his office is creating a worldwide database “that will provide the information as to who married a person, who approved and was assigned [to carry out the] conversion process, and what the current status of this person is, allowing us to validate the information if and when needed in the future.”

It’s the latest salvo in the long-running “Who is a Jew?” wars that pit an increasingly stringent religious establishment in Israel against leading Modern Orthodox rabbis in America.

Although the move is apparently intended to make the notoriously bureaucratic marriage registration process more efficient, Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM, a nonprofit that helps Israelis navigate the bureaucracy of marriages and other religious services, fears that the list will only lead to heartache for authentic Jews excluded from it.

“What’s new is that Israel’s religious establishment wants to take their authority and make it international,” Rabbi Farber told the Jewish Week. “Ostensibly the goal is to check someone’s Jewishness with the click of a button.” But in actuality, the rabbi said, “this isn’t a registry of who’s Jewish as much as a tool to declare people not Jewish. Inevitably, when it comes to a database, those not on it for whatever reason are subject to suspicion.”

Rabbi Farber said the creation of a database, presumably with the close cooperation of the Chief Rabbinate and at a cost of more than $10 million, raises many unanswered questions.

“Who will decide who is in and who is out? How will it address the overwhelming majority of Jews who aren’t ultra-Orthodox like them? Who will input the data and have access to it? What criteria will be used? How can someone not on the list get on the list? What if someone spiteful tries to get someone off the list? What about security and privacy?”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, noted that Israeli’s rabbinic establishment is “already excluding categories of Jews” — including Jews converted by the non-Orthodox streams — “and delegitimizing them and their religious communities.

“This will only make it worse,” he warned.

According to Rabbi Farber, Rabbi Samin said that any rabbi approved by the ministry — and not just a rabbi with vital interest in knowing one’s personal Jewish status — will have unlimited access to the information stored in the database, including whether someone is adopted. In addition, Rabbi Farber said, the list may increase the number of people being labeled as mamzerim — children conceived through a relationship forbidden by Jewish law.

“Jewish tradition always held that it is a value to protect people from the status of mamzerut,” Rabbi Farber said. “Such a list will make this impossible.”

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Samin said the database “is meant to prevent a person from marrying more than one person at a time.”

“When a rabbi says he will perform a wedding, he can check to see if the bride and groom are on the registry and should submit their names to be entered into the database. That way they have a record of people who have been married,” he said.

Rabbi Farber noted that the Chief Rabbinate, which ultimately decides who can and cannot marry in Israel, has been “notoriously bad” at protecting the information in its files, and is subject to frequent charges of corruption. “Three weeks ago its offices were hacked, and a former chief rabbi was recently convicted of bribery and corruption,” he said.

Rabbi Samin told The Jewish Week he was confident that the database would be well protected. “I don’t know all the details, but I have been told by our technical team it is protected by a top-notch security system. … We are expending something like NIS 40 million [$11 million] for this database.”

Rabbi Farber also noted that despite promises the Rabbinate has made in court — following suits by ITIM — to make public its list of diaspora Orthodox rabbis it recognizes and the criteria it used to establish their credentials, the Rabbinate has largely failed to do so.

Without this knowledge, Rabbi Farber said, the authority of many prominent diaspora rabbis will not be recognized by Israel’s religious establishment for the purposes of the database.

And while the Rabbinate’s failure to recognize many Orthodox diaspora rabbis has been corrected on a case-by-case basis until now, many more rabbis and their congregants run the risk of essentially being blacklisted, he said.

Rabbi Farber predicted that “between 75 and 90 percent of diaspora Jews will be left off this database” if you include non-Orthodox Jews.

Prominent American rabbis contacted by The Jewish Week expressed deep concerns over the database.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical group in the U.S., said no one from Israel’s religious establishment has contacted the council for any input related to the international database “so we don’t know how they’re gathering their material about Jews in America and its implications.”

While the RCA “appreciates the motivation of the list,” Rabbi Dratch said, “we are nevertheless very much concerned about possible consequences.”

Historically, Rabbi Dratch said, Jewish communities haven’t relied on such lists because it is the responsibility of rabbis to resolve difficult cases.

“We’re also concerned about the mistakes that inevitably appear on these lists, which can have negative consequences on people at the most vulnerable time of their lives,” he said.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a leading New York-based Modern Orthodox rabbi and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, said Israel’s rabbinic establishment has, in many cases, “already caused considerable pain and suffering to sincerely observant converts and to brides and grooms approaching their wedding dates, and to Jews from the former Soviet Union who live in Israel and have converted or wish to convert.”

Of the more than 1 million immigrants of Russian-Jewish descent who moved to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, an estimated 300,000 cannot marry in Israel because the Chief Rabbinate does not recognize them as Jewish and requires a very high level of religious observance in order to convert to Judaism.

Rabbi Lookstein said the international database “will ‘officially’ establish who is an ‘authentic’ Jew and, by implication, who is not. It will make everything worse — much worse.”

Confidentiality is also a major issue.

Jules Polonetsky, CEO of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank that advocates for responsible use of data, said he was “shocked” when he heard about the database.

Israel’s religious authorities “clearly have a zero sense of history when it comes to how databases have been used to oppress Jews over the years,” Polonetsky said. “The Germans used detailed databases classifying people by religion and address and tracked down Jews door by door.”

Polonetsky said that Jewish organizations including synagogues and philanthropic organizations in Europe and even in the U.S., where privacy laws are weaker, might be breaking the law if they hand over data about their members or donors, either because doing so violates privacy clauses or due to local laws or regulations.

If Israeli officials think they can keep this information secure, they are mistaken, Polonetsky said.

“From a security point of view, this is a disaster waiting to happen,” he asserted. “Even the CIA had its secrets dumped on WikiLeaks. The notion that somehow the rabbinical establishment can build a database that will be private and secure is highly doubtful,” Polonetsky said ominously. “This intimate information could be on WikiLeaks within months of it being created.”

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