Quickie diaspora conversions given a firm no by Sharansky

JERUSALEM — Natan Sharansky, Israel's interior minister, has weighed in with the Israeli Supreme Court on an issue that could set a precedent on Israel's policy toward conversions performed abroad.

He said he would only approve converts for citizenship if he had proof the person who converted abroad had some significant connection with the diaspora community he or she converted through.

But when there is evidence a person had been living in Israel on a temporary or tourist visa and popped overseas for a "quickie" conversion, he would not accept the application for citizenship, Sharansky said.

The minister's position, which he submitted Monday and which drew a harsh reaction from the Reform movement, referred to 15 cases of Jews who have converted overseas in Reform or Conservative communities.

The case is set to be discussed in April, when an expanded Supreme Court panel is due to rule on all outstanding conversion cases.

The cases, the bulk of which pertain to conversions performed in Israel, have been an ongoing source of tension between Israel and the non-Orthodox streams in Israel and America.

Since the specific cases of the 15 were submitted separately, the state had not yet provided its position.

Sharansky said his position on the matter is guided by two principles. First, Israel respects diaspora communities of all streams and wants them to feel an integral part of the state of Israel.

However, he said, the Jewish people must be united by a common denominator — a reference to his support for only Orthodox conversions in Israel.

"This is why it is important that we keep recognizing all conversions by all streams in the diaspora communities," Sharansky told JTA in a telephone interview Monday. "But it is very important to create a process of building one people where there is a minimum common denominator that everybody agrees upon."

Sharansky said he feared that allowing "quickie" conversions overseas could open the door to a flood of foreign workers going abroad for conversion in order to gain citizenship.

Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, called those fears "imaginary."

He said the position appeared to be an attempt to delegitimize bona fide conversions done overseas by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Based on previous court rulings, such conversions must now be legally accepted by the state of Israel.

"They cannot find fault and have not attempted to find fault with the preparation of these individuals for conversion," Regev said.

"If the study has been serious and the beit din is not a fly-by-night operation but a reputable court with a long-standing rabbi, then these fears lie only in their imagination."