Conversion, Between Crisis and Dialogue

The issue of conversion and the legal implications for Israeli citizens has, once again, become a topic of great discussion – both in the Knesset and the global Jewish world. Currently, the recently proposed changes have again been tabled [until mid-year] in order to allow for the possibility of compromise.

This past October, at JPPI’s 2010 Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, the conversion issue was the subject of a working group discussion (Conversion, between Crisis and Dialogue). Examined were points of contention and controversy; what the existing situation looks like and what are its practical implications.

A just released paper summarizes the main ideas raised in discussions and offers some policy recommendations. Following is an excerpt:

The existing situation and its practical implications
The conversion working group found agreement about the “vital and urgent” need to continue the dialogue, and the group believed that the proper ground for such a dialogue is within a non-governmental framework. The goal is to continue seeking consensual solutions for “those who honestly and seriously wish to join the Jewish people”. In other words, despite differences in principle, which may be unbridgeable, there was still an overall sentiment among most of the group that it is desirable to move forward with efforts to forge a compromise.

The practical significance of this recommendation is especially important in the Israeli arena. Even if, at the moment, there is no way to reach a compromise that would provide a comprehensive solution for the majority of the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora, it is important to note that in Israel conversion does not just have “religious” and “national” significance, but it also has crucial legal implications, in a great number of fields, for the individual and society. If the continuing dialogue between the parties produces agreements regarding the legal situation in Israel – the Conversion Law as opposed to conversion per se – it would constitute a significant contribution toward defusing tensions within Israel and in the relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.

Summary and policy recommendations
As mentioned, the chances of reaching agreement in principle concerning the “big” questions relating to conversion -“the gateway” and the overall question of “who is a Jew?” – all appear very slim under current circumstances. Any further discussion of the issue of conversion must recognize that at present all groups essentially object to any sort of compromise that means an erosion of the principals guiding their constituent groups. Actually, even the group of essential compromise seekers has been greatly reduced and currently includes mainly moderate, nationalist Orthodox, although they too have a red line which would constitute a condition sine qua non in any compromise: they demand an Orthodox signature on the agreed upon certificate of conversion.

Recognizing this general situation is a prerequisite for continuing the dialogue most Jewish groups agree must advance. With this as a starting point for discussion, the possibilities on the agenda are still challenging enough to justify the continued dialogue which would focus on the following issues:

  1. What is the proper way to arrange the legal situation in Israel in an atmosphere of no consensus and the de facto existence of several “gateways” into the Jewish people? As mentioned above, if a solution is reached on this issue alone, it will contribute greatly to improving the relations between the various groups comprising the Jewish people.
  2. A renewed conversion path agreement “shared” by the major streams and factions cannot be completely ruled out. It is true that, at the moment, such a conversion path would not find consensus, but rather left to compete with other paths leading into the Jewish people. However, the success of such a path could have long-term significance. For instance, if it turns out to be a viable, preferred choice of potential converts, it might lead in the future to a return to practical discussions around a single “gateway” that is accepted by the majority of the Jewish people and which nullifies or marginalizes the other “gateways”.
  3. Recognition of the de facto existence of several “gateways” to the Jewish people does not negate the need for discussion over secondary components that all “gateways” may share. That is to say, the participants in the discussion could refer as a given to the existence of competing gateways, but still try to agree about components that would be shared by all “paths” in order to increase as much as possible similarities. Such similarities are desirable even if they do not lead to mutual recognition of converts in any stream.
  4. Dialogue between groups and divisions can and should be used by the groups themselves in their internal discussions regarding their own specific conversion procedures. It is appropriate that an ongoing comprehensive discussion of the conversion issue would stimulate each of the groups under the Jewish people’s tent to examine its own “backyard” and strive to improve its conversion procedures and clarify its conversion principles.