Brazilian babies not Jewish enough for Israeli rabbis

Controversy rages in Israel over who has the right to be accepted as a Jew, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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The Independent Online
What do 12 Brazilian babies and 33 suspected leaders of the Russian mafia have in common? Both groups live in Israel and in each case they are facing questions about their right to call themselves Jews. The so- called "Who is a Jew?" controversy is returning to the centre of Israeli politics.

In the case of the Russian mafia suspects, the Israeli police has little doubt about their origins. Avigdor Kahalani, the police minister, says only one of them is really Jewish and the other 32 mafiosi falsely claimed to be Jews, using fictitious marriages and forged documents in order to become Israeli citizens. In fact, as many as a quarter of the 600,000 Russian immigrants to Israel since 1989 may not be Jewish.

The 12 Brazilian babies face a different problem. They are in Israel because they were adopted by Israeli parents who want them to be converted to Judaism. The Orthodox Rabbinate, which has a monopoly over religious life in Israel, will only convert them if the parents agree to become Orthodox themselves, which they are unwilling to do.

The controversy over the right to be Jewish is as old as modern Israel. It is a struggle between the secular and religious definitions of Israeli identity. But the battle has become far more intense since May, following the defeat of the secular government of the Labour Party and its left- wing ally, Meretz, by a right-wing coalition in which religious nationalists and ultra-orthodox parties are a key element.

Every day brings fresh skirmishes fought out in the streets, courts and the Knesset. This week the religious forces won a victory when the High Court accepted an exceptional law whereby pork cannot be imported into the country. On the same day a meeting of the National Religious Party told Zevulun Hammer, the Education Minister and one of its own leaders, that it would oust him if he did not stop funding dance and theatre organisations and give the money to religious institutions instead. Forty per cent of secular Jews in Jerusalem say they want to leave the city because of conflicts with the ultra-Orthodox.

The Brazilian babies, meanwhile, were fuelling a bitter dispute because the adoptive parents of two of them, to circumvent the refusal of the Orthodox Rabbinate to carry out conversions, had them converted by a more liberal rabbi from a so-called "Conservative" synagogue. Unrecognised in Israel, the more secular Conservative and Reform Jewish traditions are predominant among the 6 million Jews in North America.

Israel - bizarrely - recognises non-Orthodox conversions if they are carried out in the US but not if they are carried out in Israel. The two infants from Brazil became Jews because their conversion was registered in New York.

However, even this loophole will be closed under a bill soon to be introduced in the Knesset by Shas, one of the religious parties. This would invalidate conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis carried out abroad. This, in effect, says that 200,000 converts in the US are not really Jews.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, promises that he will allow no such thing to happen. In a satellite address to leaders of American Jews in Seattle he promised to support the compromise, which many North American Jews find humiliating, whereby the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative rabbis remains recognised in the US, but not in Israel."We are going to maintain the status quo scrupulously," he said.

This is not good enough for many North American Jewsbecause the status quo means that in Israel they are, in religious terms, considered second-class citizens.

They point out that in the late 1970s Mr Netanyahu himself married Fleur Gates, his second wife, a non-Jew, in a civil ceremony after which she was converted by a Conservative rabbi. Under the bill being proposed by Shas, part of his own government, neither the marriage nor her conversion would have been recognised in Israel.