Will my Children Be Jewish?

by Brian on June 29, 2010

in A Parent in Israel,In the News

MK David Rotem

New regulations from the Chief Rabbinate have non-Orthodox Israelis in a tizzy. According to the rules, anyone can have their Jewishness called into question at any time. But legislators in the Knesset aren’t taken the changes lying down with MK David Rotem vowing to fight.

The new rules appear to be part of an ever-tightening noose around the conversion status of Russian immigrants to Israel who the rabbinic establishment fears may not be Jewish according to a strict interpretation of Jewish Law. But they also apply to immigrants from any country – including the two hundred thousand or so Anglos in Israel.

The issue was brought to the forefront a few years back when a rabbinic judge retroactively annulled an immigrant’s conversion status because she told the court, while seeking a divorce, that she did not observe Shabbat or family purity laws.

The controversial ruling was then applied to thousands of other conversions that were considered to have been conducted improperly, in part because the converts were not living ultra-Orthodox lifestyles.

The new regulations announced in the last month require city rabbis and marriage registrars to send every convert and (this is new) every person whose parents were married abroad to the court for a determination of whether or not she or he’s a Jew.

While the main targets of the ruling are converts, the implications for Anglo immigrants are nevertheless astounding. Even though my wife Jody and I were both born Jewish, we were married in the U.S. And not by a rabbi who is on the official list of Diaspora rabbis recognized by the Chief Rabbinate. Accordingly, our children – if they decide to get married in Israel – will have to prove their own Jewishness in a court of law. And, astonishingly, they will have to pay for their own hearing.

Rivkah Lubitch, a rabbinic “pleader” who works for the Center for Women’s Justice in Jerusalem, wrote in Ynet that even if you present a marriage certificate of a “first degree relative on their mother’s side” (for example, your sister) “who had in the past received a judgment of the rabbinic court that she is a Jew,” the Marriage Registrar can still send you back to court, and if it determines “that you’re not a Jew, your sister’s Jewishness can be retroactively revoked.

Lubitch claims that a rabbinic court can summon anyone, at any time, even if that person didn’t register for marriage, and conduct a hearing about their Jewishness “and revoke it if they so will.

This is born out in a letter accompanying the directive that states that marriage registrars are “permitted” to refer even those who meet the noted conditions to such an inquiry.

I had always thought that Israel was compelled to register any marriage conducted abroad, regardless of who performed it. Does this new ruling provide a loophole to get around what has been the status quo since the establishment of the state?

My kids have plenty to be worried about. I’ve been an outspoken critic of certain aspects of religious life and one of my websites, SiddurWiki, presents some decidedly non-Orthodox positions. Combine that with the fact that we were married by a halachically-observant but officially – gasp – Reform rabbi in the U.S., and there are some big question marks hanging over my children’s futures.

To be cynical (like I haven’t been already), this all seems like a ploy to increase the staffing levels at the Chief Rabbi’s office, providing more jobs to cronies at the taxpayer’s expense, although as I wrote earlier, the financial burden of the inquiries will be borne by the person being investigated. Talk about chutzpah!

Ultimately, this new ruling, if it’s not overturned, will serve as further fodder to the increasingly strident attacks against the official rabbinic establishment – just see the passions ignited by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s recent comments.

When I shared this article with my teenage daughter, she couldn’t understand what the Rabbinate was trying to achieve. Neither can I, other than to create a blatant wedge between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry.

The ruling has plenty of detractors, including Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the American Jewish Committee’s Dr. Ed Rettig who called it “a power grab of breathtaking scale,” and Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center who has demanded that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein cancel the new procedures “on the grounds that they were not issued by the justice minister and approved by the Knesset Law Committee, as the law demands on matters of marriage and divorce,” the Jerusalem Post reports.

David Rotem, an Orthodox member of the Knesset from the Israel Beitenu party and chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, has also joined the opposition, saying he’s ready to go all the way to the Supreme Court to fight the politicization of “our beautiful halacha.” Adds Rotem, “These scandalous guidelines manifest the attempt to oversee every aspect of everything that happens in the country.” Ironically, Rotem is behind a bill that would change the way conversions are recognized that has also been derided by non-Orthodox critics as being overly stringent.

Maybe this new ruling can serve as a wake up call. One of the main reasons we chose to live in the revitalized Jewish state was to be able to have a say over our own destiny. When you don’t like something, you can take action – demonstrate, vote, write letters to your parliamentary representatives. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity. I for one welcome the coming battle.

This article appeared on the Israelity blog last week.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Leonie Lachmish June 29, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Maybe it will force the Israeli public to bring the Rabbanut (as it stands) down. There is so much that is lo baseder there. Maybe there will finally be an alternative Beit Din that will look after the aguna rather than her oppressor, for example and that will respect other Batei Din.
I think it is naive to look for a reasonable or pure motive behind this and other hachmarot. There is so much intolerance and so little Ahavat Yisrael there, that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
Leonie Lachmish

2 Valerie June 30, 2010 at 9:56 pm

I live in the States, so I have plenty of our own government shenanigans that puzzle me, but as an outsider, I am just completely flummoxed by the Israeli government. As a non-Jew, I don’t have an innate attachment to Israel. I am raising Jews, though, and as parent, I am sensitive (maybe hyper-sensitive) to their treatment by other Jews. As a moderate/liberal, this stance just makes it harder to argue on behalf of (and support) Israel. Are the Orthodox the majority in Israel?

3 Tzipporah July 2, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Interesting take on it – the new ruling seems aimed more at Israeli chiloni than immigrants, to me, since all non-Orthodox Jews in Israel are prevented from marrying inside the country.

When will Israel finally recognize that Judaism doesn’t equal Orthodoxy, let alone Haredism?

4 Mike Bennett July 8, 2010 at 3:03 am

Maybe only “Jews” that the Chief Rabbi approves of should be drafted. See how long Israel lasts if that happens. State religion. Not a good idea.

5 Shira Salamone July 14, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Not only have we been having quite a discussion of this post here, but now, I’m even getting e-mails from non-Jewish friends on the subject of the new conversion rules–and I sent them a link to your post. Thank you for publishing this.

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