The Israeli Interior Ministry, under Shas party leadership, appears to have exceeded the limits of tolerance, even among Orthodox leaders, in its latest move that would in effect prohibit a number of Orthodox converts from making aliyah.
Sparked by a letter this week signed by more than 100 Orthodox rabbis from the U.S. calling the Interior Ministry’s policy “an injustice,” the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) is seeking government authority to take responsibility for handling the aliyah process for converts. That would be a positive solution to an absurd problem.
The issue here is not about giving a secular agency the right to determine halachic matters dealing with conversion, marriage or divorce. Instead, it is about creating an equitable policy for the State of Israel in confirming that a convert is accepted by his or her own normative community for the purpose of aliyah under the Law of Return.
For Reform or Conservative converts who seek to settle in Israel, that means Israeli authorities confirm that the people in question are deemed Jewish according to their respective denominational movements. But since there is no body in the Orthodox world to serve as a central clearinghouse for such information, the Chief Rabbinate in the last several years has been making these decisions. It has done so based on about 20 batei din, or religious courts, it authorizes in North America, most of which are affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America.
More recently, the Chief Rabbinate was relying on the Interior Ministry to vouch for an Orthodox convert’s authenticity for the purpose of aliyah.
As a result, it was becoming more difficult for many Orthodox converts to make aliyah than for Reform or Conservative converts.
Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization, ITIM, has been instrumental in helping people navigate the bureaucratic and political pitfalls in dealing with the Chief Rabbinate on issues of conversion, marriage and divorce, decried the Interior Ministry policy as “bad for Israel and bad for the Jewish people” and sought to change it.
His group initiated the letter to Interior Minister Eli Yishai that was signed this week by rabbis affiliated with the RCA, Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University and International Rabbinic Fellowship. It urged the minister to “rectify an injustice” and “insure that those individuals…converted by Orthodox rabbinical courts will automatically be eligible for aliyah as they have been in the past.”
On Tuesday, in response to the ITIM letter, the board of governors of JAFI approved a statement calling on the government to “confirm the responsibility of JAFI as the body to ascertain, through inquiry with the appropriate parties in the relevant country, that the rabbi certifying the religious eligibility of a prospective oleh is qualified to do so.”
Rabbi Farber noted that it is proper for JAFI “to assume its historic role in determining aliyah status.”
We agree, and urge Minister Yishai to recognize that the current policy is disenfranchising world Jewry. It is time for him to retract his authority and support JAFI’s recommendation in the hopes of unifying rather than further dividing Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.