Monday, June 18, 2012

Africans Who Want To Convert Rejected by Israel

I've been ambivalent about Israel's policy towards African migrants. I have a general belief in relatively liberal immigration policies, at least for the United States. At the same time, most countries aren't the United States (for example, they're much smaller). Certainly, while humane treatment of immigrants is an absolute must, I don't view rejecting an open border policy as a per se human rights violation.

But another facet of Israel's existence is as a haven for Jews -- Jews, of course, have a "right of return" to Israel regardless of where they're from. So what about African migrants who wish to convert to Judaism? Ha'aretz is reporting that Israel's conversion committee has rejected every single one of those applications was rejected ("Of course, all the requests were rejected," is how the Prime Minister's Office put it).

This is deeply upsetting. Israeli society has long had a problem with racism directed towards its African community (including African Jews), so in a sense it is unsurprising that it is erecting a per se bar to African conversions. Still, it strikes very close to the heart of the very function of the Jewish state, and the way in which the "Jewish" part has been captured by regressive, ultra-orthodox forces who view any Jew that isn't under their thumb as a threat.

Now. the claim here is that these migrants are seeking to convert in bad faith, simply to gain citizenship in Israel. This doesn't move me, for at least three reasons. First: All of them? Every last one? 100% is a figure that one rarely reaches via dispassionate evaluation; it's the province of banana republic "elections" and Ron Paul newsletters. That "of course" all of them were rejected is heavy evidence that the bad faith came from the government's conversion committee, not each and every applicant. Second, conversion to Judaism isn't exactly a walk in the park. It's a difficult, grinding process -- quite capable of forcing people to prove their commitment to the faith. In fact, that's the entire design of it. So if someone wants to go through conversion, I say you start him or her down the process and see where it leads. Bad faith will reveal itself soon enough.

But perhaps most importantly -- what is the "bad faith" here? A bunch of people saw a Jewish society, saw that it functioned well, saw that it produced opportunities they lacked elsewhere, saw that it operated in a way they viewed as promising such that they wanted to stay a part of that community -- how is that not the epitome of what we want in a convert? Is keeping strict kosher part of what is driving them? Admittedly doubtful, but then I don't do that either, so I can hardly view it is an essential part of a genuine design to join the Jewish community. As far as I'm concerned, the desire to live in Israel as a Jew is almost self-referentially proof of a good-faith desire to become a Jew. The Israeli government should have treated it as such.

In any event, it would be interesting to see what would happen if some Orthodox Rabbis traveled with these deportees back to their countries of origins and tried to set up a formal, full-length Orthodox conversion process. Outside the direct control of the Israeli government, it would be far harder to deny them re-entry if they come back as Jews.


jillheather said...

And these two issues -- non-Orthodox rabbis aren't "real" (related sexism issues included) and non-white Jews aren't allowed -- are why I refuse to give money to support Israel in any way, from charities to tourism. They're not a Jewish homeland, they're a homeland for some subset of Jews that very explicitly excludes me.

David Schraub said...

Well the latter isn't quite true -- non-White Jews are certainly allowed in Israel (indeed, they're a plurality of Israel's Jewish population, incorporating Hispanic, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Jews). The issue isn't about "non-Whites" as a whole, or even non-White Jews, it's about Black African potential converts, who are viewed with hostility by large portions of Israel's population (White and non-White -- though from what I've observed Israel's non-White Jewish population tends towards greater levels of xenophobia than do their White Jews).

The former is absolutely true -- Israel's religious establishment is under control of a orthodox monopoly that is hostile to non-orthodox Jews and helps press a great deal of retrogressive policies (sexist ones included).

In any event, I don't really disagree -- I do my best to support Israeli organizations which do good work, which is to say, NGOs which match my ideological preferences.

jillheather said...

My knowedge of non-white Hispanic and Asian immigration into Israel doesn't just approach zero, it is zero, so I defer to you here. (I also don't know what kind of discrimination there might be against white Hispanic, aka Sephardic, Jews.)

But I should have said "welcome" and not "allowed".

I generally support local or health reseach charities, so Israeli charities wouldn't be on my radar. It does mean I cannot support local Jewish charities, though, as they give financial support to Israel, and not in enough detail that I can figure out whether or not I want to support them. (I don't object to financing scientific research in Israel, though I generally choose a well-regarded national place and let them figure it out.)

Get me started on how I feel about the URJ supporting Israel. I remain convinced that if Conservative and Reform Jews in North America all stopped supporting Israel until their denominations were treated equally, it would happen quickly. It's obviously not a priority for most people, though.

My local Reform synagogue is, however, getting a new rabbi in a week, and I'm hoping this means that (for instance) not every sermon will be about Israel, and she'll push in some much needed reform (removed by the latest rabbi). She's a she. She's married to another she, who is a convert and also a rabbi. She cannot possibly be as conservative as our last rabbi. I hope. (I plan to go to services, occasionally, and not just on the High Holy Days.)

PG said...

I think to the extent you believe open borders are a good idea, if not necessarily required by human rights, you're taking a position that's relatively extreme in this debate (albeit shared by the WSJ editorial page).

Unless the Africans are forbidden to convert in their home countries (as happened for Indian immigrants to Israel, and may be true in some Muslim African countries), or have no means of conversion there (though if they're so short on rabbis, how much do they actually know about Judaism?), I don't think it's unreasonable for Israel to require that people who wish to immigrate on the basis of religious rather than ethnic Jewishness start becoming Jewish first.

Also, there may have been a specific concern about this particular group, since African-Israelis have been accepted as converts -- 1,647 last year.

I agree with the prior comments that this process shouldn't be controlled by a single denomination of Judaism, but I also wouldn't assume that the conversion committee acts based on racism.