In the seemingly never-ending battle over who can and who can not perform conversions to Judaism the State of Israel will recognize, an Sefardic ultra-Orthodox government minister ventures to genetics to explain why ultra-Orthodox Jewish law must determine conversion issues.
At the Presidential Conference's panel on conversion held earlier this week, Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel; Ya'akok Neeman, Israel's Justice Minister and an Orthodox Jew who once headed the government's commission to solve the conversion crisis; and non-Orthodox Jewish leaders from the Diaspora and Israel, gave their views.
But the haredi representative canceled at last minute and without explanation, leaving organizers desperate to find someone to fill those shoes.
Yishai had ducked into the room to say hello to Sharansky and Neeman and, once there (and apparently unaware of the makeup of the panel and the audience), at Sharansky's request, Yishai agreed to make brief remarks representing the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) view.
Here's a brief excerpt from those remarks, courtesy of the Jerusalem Post:
[Yishai] mentioned a study from 10 years ago in the US which identified a matrilineal “Jewish gene” and patrinileal “Jewish priestly gene,” scientific insight that bewildered the audience but was [used as] an argument to prove that “conversion must be according to Halacha.”
This is roughly like saying Mr. Cohen and Ms. Pinkus got married. Therefore all conversions to Judaism must follow ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law. In fact, saying "Mr. Cohen and Ms. Pinkus got married. Therefore all conversions to Judaism must follow ultra-Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law," may make more logical sense that what Yishai said.
After his brief remarks, Yishai quickly left the room.
But Neeman, the Orthodox Justice Minister, took that opportunity to lash out at Diaspora Jewish leaders, who are overwhelmingly not Orthodox, and to play the race card, blaming African refugees for the conversion crisis:
…[Justice Minister Yaakov] Neeman in his speech continued Yishai’s plea for unity, but also took the opportunity to lash out at US Jewry for focusing on the conversion issue in Israel, while the true problem facing the diaspora is assimilation. The minister was referring to last year’s massive pressure from US Jewry on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to quell [MK] Rotem’s initial conversion bill, which would have given the Chief Rabbinate the authority over conversion in Israel for the price of enabling more conversion courts and lenient rabbinical judges.
Conversion in Israel, Neeman said, is different than in the US, since it entails legal rights – citizenship – and therefore “clear, legal norms” on the process must be agreed upon.
“The question is not which stream in Judaism is good,” the minister said. “In Israel, we have a problem. We have hundreds of thousands of illegal emigrants, especially from Africa, who came illegally and want to stay here. No country in the world, including the enlightened United States, would allow them – through an easy, religious procedure – to become citizens of the state. This is an Israeli problem.”
Neeman, who has excellent English, chose to make his address in Hebrew, as if to stress that the conversion issues at hand were an Israeli, not American, problem.
“The problem facing diaspora Jewry is not conversion,” Neeman continued.
“The major issue there is the high percentage disappearing from the world of Judaism.
What Hitler didn’t succeed in doing is happening now; there is terrible assimilation.”
Neeman stressed that he recognizes and respects every stream in Judaism – Lithuanians, Hassidim, Reform, Conservative.
“They are all Jews; that is not the problem. The problem is baseless hatred,” he said, using the title of the forthcoming book by Rene Levy on that issue.
“Thirteen or fourteen years ago, I sat down with all the streams in Judaism, and we reached understandings,” he said of the committee he headed. “Conversion has legal ramifications, unlike the US, where it doesn’t. You can’t let anyone who wants to convert do so, since that enables them to enter the country and receive citizenship, or change the status of an alien to legal. You must reach clear, legal norms. The body that torpedoed the issue was the Chief Rabbinate, who decided not to accept the committee’s findings. Today, they are penitent,” he said wryly.
“The committee said that conversion should be according to Jewish law. You must understand what the problem is, and what the solution is. The solution is to sit at a round-table, talk respectfully, and refrain from baseless hatred.”
A country whose elected leaders misuse genetics and play the race card to justify narrow restrictive interpretations of religious law, which are in turn is used to harass converts and lash out at the rabbis who converted them is, I think, teetering on the edge of moral collapse.
How long will it be before DNA testing is required of all potential immigrants, with those unlucky enough to 'fail' barred from Israel unless and until some centuries old conversion document is somehow located?
Of course, Israel may not go down that route for practical reasons.
There is a southern African tribe called the Lemba. Many of its members – especially its priests – have the so-called Cohen gene. And the Lemba also have an ancient origin story that says they are descended from Israelites.
No, Israel really can't go the genetic route.
After all, it already has far too many schvartzes.