Conversion and Naturalization

Two laws proposed in Israel over the past few months stirred up international controversy. The Rotem Bill, which would make the Israeli Chief Rabbinate the de jure arbiter of conversion to Judaism, generated a tremendous amount of opposition, particularly among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. The more recent proposed amendment to the Citizenship Law, which would require an oath of loyalty from applicants for Israeli citizenship, has been criticized and condemned globally, with the strongest voices coming from the Muslim world. Although public criticism came to each bill from vastly different quarters, the bills, and their respective oppositions, share certain similarities, beyond the obvious fact that both address the conditions under which an outsider becomes an insider.

"Converting to Judaism" is something of a misnomer. From its inception the term conversion implies an instantaneous transformation, an experience after which one is no longer the same. The paradigmatic conversion experience is that of Saul of Tarsus, beholding a vision on the road to Damascus and becoming the Apostle Paul. The Jewish term for a new adherent is “ger,” which literally means “migrant,” implicitly recognizing that giyur, the process by which a gentile becomes Jewish, corresponds to the process by which a foreigner adopts and is adopted by his new host society. Both processes are—or ought to be—gradual, allowing the neophyte time to absorb the language, lifestyle, and values of the adoptive society. In other words, giyur is much closer to naturalization than to conversion.

Of course, there is a moment at which the new legal status is conferred, at which the gentile becomes a Jew and the immigrant a citizen. And certainly this moment, coming as it often does at the end of an arduous and often traumatic process of acculturation, is a significant milestone in the life of the newcomer. Nevertheless, there exists a tendency to confuse the moment of conferral with the process, to relate to naturalization as a form of conversion. Yet naturalization, like giyur, is not stand-alone moment; it is a process.

In fact, proponents of both laws seem to have fallen into this very trap. Mandating a loyalty oath will not solve any potential problem of immigrants opposing Israel’s core democratic and Jewish values. If most non-Jews who become Israeli citizens are loyal to the state, it is not due to the presence or absence of any oath, but to their adoption of and by their new home. As for giyur, the raison d’etre of the Rotem Bill is to streamline the process and facilitate the mass conversion of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the FSU. The bill views giyur as a bureaucratic formality and aims to define who may—and who may not—confer the status of “Jew” in Israel. Bracketing the question of whether streamlined giyur, which all but the incorrigibly naïve understand does not entail any commitment to Jewish law, is halakhically valid, reducing giyur from a gradual, community-based process to a bureaucratic state-run form of lip-service to Jewish tradition reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the giyur process.

Critics of the legislation are not immune to confusing naturalization with conversion either. To be sure, both pieces of proposed legislation literally alienate—render alien—certain populations by enshrining de facto realities—that Israel is a democratic Jewish state and that only (some) Orthodox conversions are recognized by the Chief Rabbinate—in law. Nevertheless, opposition to the loyalty oath may succeed in removing it from the political agenda, but will not change the fact that becoming an Israeli citizen implies embracing the Jewish and democratic fabric of Israeli society. Both sides are thus fighting to win a meaningless and potentially Pyrrhic victory. Opponents of the Rotem Bill have tended to focus their criticism on the identity of the state-sanctioned gatekeepers instead of where it belongs: on the bill’s misguided approach to giyur in general, and on the question of whether conferral of religious status is even a power that an inevitably bureaucratic state should arrogate to itself.

Laws pertaining to the related processes of naturalization and religious reaffiliation should recognize that they are among the most arduous and anxiety-inducing that human beings undergo voluntarily. As such, they deserve to be handled by the state in a manner that reflects their subtlety, without reducing them to mere slogans.

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