To Be a Jew, Who Decides?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010 |  by Daniel Goldstein

A current debate that is brewing in the Israeli Knesset is centered on the issue of who should control conversions to Judaism of IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers, the Chief Rabbi or the State.

There are thousands of immigrants (mostly from Russia) that are not considered Jewish according to the Rabbinate (the Jewish religious authority) because they are not born of a Jewish mother. They have the right to immigrate to Israel based on their father or a grandparent being Jewish but they themselves are not considered fully Jewish.

Those who find themselves in this category are considered "second class citizens" by the religious establishment and are somewhat limited in different areas in Israel as it pertains to religious life. One of the main obstacles of not being accepted as fully Jewish is being denied the right to marry another Jew in Israel.

In order to overcome this hurdle, those who are not recognized as "full Jews" must go through a conversion process if they want to totally integrate into the Jewish society.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Foreign Minister and chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, is currently at the forefront of promoting a bill in the Knesset that would give power to the State to approve IDF conversions without the consent of the Chief Rabbinate. This bill has passed 74 to 18 in a preliminary vote last Wednesday, December 15th, and will continue to be voted on in future sessions.

If the bill continues to pass and gets final approval, soldiers who convert in the IDF will be officially recognized as Jewish before the State of Israel, a status that has been continually called into question by the Rabbinate in the past.

There are some in the Knesset, like Minister Yishai of the Shas party (an ultra-religious party), that are totally opposed to this new bill because it takes power away from the Rabbinate.

The Shas party is threatening to breakup Netanyahu's coalition government if this bill continues to go forward. Netanyahu has voted for this bill and has stated that the soldiers who go through the conversion process "are part of the Jewish nation."

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