Ministry: Israel should woo 60 million people who have Jewish links to aid state

Ministry: Israel should woo 60 million people who have Jewish links to aid state

Seeking converts, immigrants, and Israel advocates, Diaspora Ministry-appointed panel suggests pilot project among 5 million descendants of Jewish converts to Christianity

About 100 "Bnei Menashe" (Sons of Menashe) from India landed at Ben Gurion Airport, on June 25, 2015, immigrating to Israel (Flash90)
About 100 "Bnei Menashe" (Sons of Menashe) from India landed at Ben Gurion Airport, on June 25, 2015, immigrating to Israel (Flash90)

Some 60 million people worldwide have an affinity with Judaism or Israel, including plenty of groups and individuals who could be screened for potential conversion and immigration to Israel, a committee set up by the Diaspora Affairs Ministry has concluded.

In what it calls an “unprecedented strategic opportunity,” the committee calls for mapping potential communities, providing learning materials about Judaism, the Jewish state, and the Hebrew language, and designing a special track for those interested in working, living, and perhaps even converting to Judaism to come to Israel, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported Wednesday.

Orthodox rabbis immediately attacked the idea, saying that Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. Reform Jews said the government was more interested in expelling people not considered Jewish enough than in recruiting new ones — a reference to cases in which individuals have had their citizenship revoked for various reasons.

The Diaspora Affairs Ministry said in a statement that the report had not yet been adopted and that the aim was not mass conversion but rather strengthening the relationship between Israel and non-Jewish communities abroad.

One of the report’s recommendations is to review the potential of these overseas communities to serve as positive representatives of the Jewish state who can also help in the battle against anti-Semitism.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett leads a faction meeting of his Jewish Home party at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The report was commissioned in 2016 by Naftali Bennett, the minister for Diaspora affairs as well as for education, who heads the right-wing, religious Jewish Home Party. Aimed at providing advice to the government on policy toward what it calls the “large communities” seeking Israeli recognition, connections and even citizenship, the committee presented its report to the cabinet secretary earlier this week.

Among the millions of potential recruits, the report identifies descendants of Jews who are not eligible to immigrate to Israel without formal conversion — so-called Marranos descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity several centuries ago; descendants of so-called “Red Marranos” from Eastern Europe, who hid their Judaism from the Communist regime; communities that declare themselves to be Jewish but are not officially recognized, such the Falashmura of Ethiopia and the Bnei Menashe of India; groups in Africa and Asia claiming a more distant connection with Judaism; and other groups worldwide who feel ideologically and spiritually close to the Jewish people.

The reports breaks these groups down into circles of proximity, with more than 14 million people in the closest group (Jews in Israel and overseas), followed by nine million who are entitled to immigrate under the Law of Return, five million who are the descendants of converts, and around 35 million people who are already known to have an affinity with the Jewish state.

The Law of Return gives citizenship rights to people who have at least one Jewish grandparent or who are married to a Jew.

In all, says the report, some 60 million people can be defined as “future potential,” among them people who are not yet aware of this.

Evangelical Christians from around the world sing and recite prayers at the Jerusalem Chairman’s Conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, September 22, 2013. (Flash90)

The committee’s recommendations include designing a pilot project among the descendants of forced converts, creating an online database which could include genealogical information, planning special entry permits to allow interested non-Jews to study and work in Israel and setting up institutes overseas aimed at spreading Jewish and Israeli culture in the way that the Goethe and French institutes do in Germany and France.

Rabbi Dov Lior, head of the Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria, told Haaretz that proselytizing was not the Jewish way and that it was important, first of all, to bring lapsed Jews back to religious practice.

Rabbi Uri Sherki told the paper that while he supported strengthening the connection with non-Jews, he feared that some of them would be more interested in establishing a connection between Jews and Christianity.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director general of the Reform Movement in Israel, said that the report reflected Reform Judaism’s view. He added that such an approach was repeatedly rejected by the Israeli government, which was “preoccupied with raising walls between the Jewish people” and by expelling people from the State of Israel.

Reform movement head Gilad Kariv (photo credit: CC BY Gilad Kariv/Facebook)
Reform movement director general Gilad Kariv. (CC BY Gilad Kariv/Facebook)

Dr. Shuki Friedman of the Israel Democracy Institute said he saw no chance that the government would implement the committee’s recommendations.

He said attention had to be focused first on finding solutions for the nearly half a million Israeli citizens who were allowed to immigrate under the Law of Return and who serve in the army, live and work in the country, but who are not recognized by Orthodox Judaism as members of the faith.

These include many immigrants from the states of the former Soviet Union.

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