Israel media review

Preaching to the converted: What the press is saying about an unorthodox ruling

A decision forcing Israel to recognize non-Orthodox conversions here is seen as affecting few actual converts or voters’ minds, but could still shake up the political calculus

Ultra-Orthodox Hayat brothers practice Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music, in the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. (Nati Shohat /FLASH90)
Ultra-Orthodox Hayat brothers practice Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music, in the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City. (Nati Shohat /FLASH90)

1. Symbolic bombshell: A High Court ruling that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of obtaining citizenship through the Law of Return is regarded as a major bombshell Monday, upending years during which Israel’s Interior Ministry refused to take such a step.

  • The deal is predictably celebrated by the non-Orthodox and deplored by the ultra-Orthodox, and is also thrust almost immediately into the political sphere, coming a few weeks before Israel goes back to the polls. With Conservative and Reform Jews making up just a tiny slice of Israel, most news reports focus not on the historicity of the ruling, but the fight surrounding it.
  • “The number of people knocking on the doors of conversion schools is not large. There are no long lines of non-Jews that just waited for this moment, and it’s doubtful if there will be,” writes Shmuel Rosner for Kan.
  • He calls the ruling part of a larger power struggle and tries to pour cold water on anyone who may be celebrating it. “There will still be a stigma of ‘not-quite-the-real-thing.’ Just like Haredim, Reform have a tendency to fight over symbols rather than substance. Today they won, tomorrow they will lose. The point is that those who make a living off fights can make a living off of fights.”
  • “Very little is likely to change in the life of Reform and Conservative converts because of Monday’s ruling. But Israel itself will change,” writes ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur.
  • “In recognizing for the first time conversions done inside Israel, the State of Israel will necessarily be recognizing in a formal way the Reform and Conservative movements themselves, the institutions that are doing or have done the converting. Second, coming just 22 days before the election, the ruling promises to become a rallying cry for religious conservatives and liberals alike,” he says.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth’s Hen Artzi-Srour writes that it is a “symbolic fight between Haredi and Reform [Jews],” and won’t affect many people. “The real question is who won’t it affect. “The ruling is irrelevant for the hundreds of thousands of people, mostly descended from the former Soviet Union, who moved to Israel under the Law of Return, but whose Jewishness is not recognized by the rabbinate. Most were born here, their identities are totally Jewish, but their status is under doubt due to a confused, harsh and shameful conversion system.”

2. Rock the vote: Where the ruling is seen as having the biggest effect is the political arena, with elections rearing up.

  • ToI’s David Horovitz writes that the ruling strikes “a far deeper blow against the Orthodox monopoly over Judaism” than the battle over the Western Wall prayer plaza, but the fight is not over yet.
  • “At a stroke, the court’s ruling at least partially remakes the March 23 elections. They remain largely a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership and suitability, but with the added dimension now of the struggle between the broadly Orthodox right, with whom the secular Netanyahu has long been allied, and the secular left,” he notes.
  • True to form, Likud-backing Israel Hayom jumps into the fray with a front-page headline accusing the court of meddling and vowing to have the ruling overturned.
  • In a column for the paper, Mati Tuchfeld writes that the ruling doesn’t allow politicians to remain on the sidelines — hinting but not saying outright that it will force parties on the right that don’t back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to choose sides: “As Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are now seen as one and the same, the ‘anything but Netanyahu’ camp pursue[s] the opposite – progressive, anti-religious liberalism. Therefore, if you are ‘anti-Netanyahu’ you are inherently ‘anti-Haredi’ and vice versa.”
  • The paper also shows its Haredi-loving bona fides itself, running a column by Rabbi David Ben Nissan under a headline calling the ruling a “slippery slope toward allowing conversion of foreign workers” who are trying to find a backdoor into citizenship, a seemingly racist straw-man argument. (Why an Eritrean asylum-seeker converting is any different from an American tourist is not explained.)
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer writes that the ruling is a “double headache” for Netanyahu, forcing him to choose between Diaspora Jewry and his potential Haredi coalition partners, even if it won’t change any voters’ minds. “In recent years, Netanyahu has usually been eager to pick a fight with the legal establishment to rally his base and claim that the investigations and indictments against him are all the result of a ‘witch-hunt’ by the legal deep state. But this time, he has remained silent after the High Court ruling. It’s a lose-lose situation as far as he’s concerned. In fact, the justices are doing him a favor by making the only possible decision for him. But the Haredim won’t let this stand.”
  • After Likud responds by slamming the ruling, Walla’s Barak Ravid tweets that “it has officially become a Haredi party.”

3. Wait no more: As the ultra-Orthodox dig in their heels, UTJ politician Yitzhak Pindrus kicks up a storm by telling a conference that “someone who went through an IDF conversion is a shiksa. If someone marries them, the father should sit shiva.”

  • After Army Radio airs the comments, which were taped and set to be published later Tuesday, Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who is running for Knesset with Labor, uses them to dunk on the idea of ultra-Orthodox control of conversion. “Contempt and hatred are coming out of his mouth, so why the hell would we need to give him and his friends a monopoly on our Judaism.”
  • “We are very enthusiastic about it and very happy to have it come at this moment,” Rabbi Josh Weinberg, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism for Israel and Reform Zionism, tells Haaretz of the High Court ruling. “We had individuals who were waiting in limbo for their status to be recognized so we’re very glad for this decision.”
  • The paper reports that some 300 people are converted by the Reform or Conservative movements in Israel a year, about 90 percent of whom are already eligible under the Law of Return, which still leaves about 30 people a year that it does affect.
  • “I’ve been waiting for this decision for 10 years,” Alejandro Tuber, who converted in Israel and lives as a Jew, but is not recognized as a Jewish citizen, tells Walla news. “I’ll finally be an Israeli citizen in every sense. This was my dream.”
  • Erica Belovai tells the news site that it won’t change her day-to-day life, but “at least now I can vote and won’t need to renew my visa every year.”
  • ToI’s Jacob Magid writes that “notably silent were several major umbrella Jewish organizations including the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Orthodox Union.”

4. Country wide shut: Another possible lose-lose for Netanyahu is the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Health Ministry director Chezy Levy tells 103FM that Netanyahu’s decisions are increasingly being guided by appealing for votes rather than sound health advice.
  • “We all assess that all these discussions are influenced and tainted by the panic over elections and are affected by it,” he says.
  • “Get your passports ready, the plan for opening the skies is coming to the cabinet,” reads one front page headline in Israel Hayom, which reports that more moves to ease restrictions are on the way. Inside, the paper takes a more cautious approach, noting that the moves are coming “despite infection.”
  • Health expert Prof. Nadav Davidovitch backs the opening in a column for the paper, so long as it’s done cautiously, writing that mental health issues caused by lockdowns must also be taken into account. “We must be smart enough to learn from our mistakes and bravely show the full picture of public health, a view that sees health not just as statistics but foremost as people, wherever they are.”
  • One thing not open, at least not as of this writing, is the airport, though a pilot program to fit returnees with tracker bracelets to make sure they stay in isolation for the required period has taken off. “It’s amazing that we can be home in isolation,” says a Jewish Agency official who was the first to be fitted as she came in with a plane of immigrants.
  • Haaretz aims its lead editorial squarely at the strange system deciding who can come in and who not, jumping fully behind the theory that only those who might support the prime minister or his allies in the election — i.e., the ultra-Orthodox — are getting the okay.
  • “The [exceptions] committee has become mainly a VIP lane for the ultra-Orthodox and other people with government connections,” it writes. “This is blatant discrimination, and it continues the politicized policy of selective enforcement of the coronavirus regulations – i.e., a clear bias in favor of the ultra-Orthodox. … The fact that the government is forbidding citizens to enter on the eve of an election deals a mortal blow to the right to vote. And when you consider that exemptions from the ban on entry to Israel have been granted mainly to the Haredim, you realize that this policy has unequivocal electoral implications that favor the pro-Netanyahu bloc.”
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