Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Israeli Election Ad Attacks Russian Converts

In a jaw-dropping moment of public relations FAIL, the Israeli political party Shas released an election ad stereotyping and bashing Russian converts (perhaps all Israeli converts?).

Here is the video. There are Hebrew subtitles on the video, but if you click the CC button on the bottom so that captions are on, the English translation will appear.

Now, this isn't totally out of left field. There has been constant debate about the halachic status of "Russians" in Israel since the fall of the USSR. (I always feel weird calling people from all areas of the USSR "Russian," but that appears to be the word used.) Under the Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent could immigrate to Israel, and thousands and thousands did. Halachically, many weren't Jewish or the documents that could have proven their Jewishness were unavailable. a problem. The line between "church" and state in Israel sometimes doesn't exist. Especially in family law. Marriage, divorce, etc, is governed by religious courts rather than secular ones. Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Muslim courts, if I recall correctly. Therefore, sometimes it can be hard to determine which court the "questionable Jews" should use. They identify as Jewish, and many do convert, though some insist that a conversion was unnecessary.

So what's the problem? They can't marry Jewishly (legally) in Israel because the Rabbinate won't approve it, and there is no secular marriage alternative. They will have to leave Israel in order to marry. Israel recognizes all marriages performed abroad (even same sex ones, I'm told), but ones within Israel must fall into one of the religious courts. If you don't fit that mold or can't get approval from them, you have to marry somewhere else. I'm sure there are other problems, but this is the primary one: fight "intermarriage" and have certainty about children's halachic status.

The debate has centered on how to convert the Russians without the correct papers in order to make sure everything is on the halachic up-and-up. Problem: many in the community are not religious and have no intention of becoming observant. They are traditional or maybe not even that much. After all, the Soviets went to a lot of trouble to repress religious expression. So what's an orthodox Rabbinate to do? Everyone's got an answer, and then someone else always vetoes it. Individuals have pursued conversions through the Israeli Rabbinate, including many people who were never observant and had no intention of becoming observant, leading to some questioning of the validity of their conversions (ironic for us Americans, right?). Others have proposed mass conversions akin to the U.S. citizenship ceremony.

The most interesting part to me is that, based on my understanding, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has been one of the biggest supporters of more "traditional" ("lax" according to his opponents) standards for conversion, which would allow halachic conversions for many of these people. Rav Ovadia is often described as the head of the Shas party, but my understanding is that he is more the "spiritual head" than an actual political leader. Either way, it would be ironic that they are slamming the perception of his own rulings in these cases. Thankfully, this YouTube page says that the ads have been removed "for the sake of peace." Rather than it being the right thing to do. Yeah.

I won't lie, it's a difficult dilemma. But it's not appropriate to stereotype and shame Russians or converts as a political tactic. I think I prefer my election mudslinging the old fashioned way.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, and I agree with everything you wrote! For my take on the issue, please see: