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.