The question of ‘who is a convert’ in Judaism is as debatable as finding answers to ‘who is a Jew?’ The debates, both politically and sociologically have been caused due to the ambiguity in the definition of ‘Jewishness’. Moreover, even the process of conversion can be questioned on its validity. The entire question of conversion into Judaism took a different turn in 1983, when the reform movement adopted the patrilineal descent for determining the identity of a Jew. Also, the porous nature of the Law of Return is Israel gives automatic citizenship to anyone who can establish even one Jewish ancestry or lineage. Along with it, the non-Jewish spouse of a citizen of Israel, under the Law of Return, is entitled to bring in his relatives under the Law of entry. On one hand, the conscious policy of the Jewish agency to maximize immigration did act as an experiment in social engineering but on the other hand, it also added to the non-Jewish population. Also, as there is no option for civil marriage in Israel, there are thousands of Israeli citizens who cannot marry in Israel. This situation is definitely not demographically sustainable in the long run.

The rules and discussions regarding conversion into Judaism began several centuries ago. In the sixteenth century, these discussions led to the formation of Shulchan Aruch that basically codified the Jewish law. It aimed at three strict yet separate necessary requirements for converting into Judaism. Firstly, the converts have to accept the Torah completely and religiously follow all of its 613 mitzvot. Secondly, they have to take a mandatory dip in mikvah or the ritual bath. Thirdly, the male converts need to get circumcised or have to undergo ritualistic drawing of their blood, often called as hatafat dam. After meeting all the above mentioned requirements, the converts have to then appear before the traditional religious court known as beit din. These courts are ruled by three men who finally legitimize the conversion of the convert.

The mass Aliyahs of the 1990s were definitely a blessing for the Jewish people as it led to reunion of thousands of Jews who had been living isolated lives. But over the years, the rabbinical discourses and sages got differentiated into orthodox and reform streams that started to dictate the basis of rules of conversion, thereby leading to emergence of evident debates and lack of consensus. Also, intermarried families have already started to constitute a very significant proportion in the congregational memberships in the Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements. The modernist and non-orthodox denominations of Judaism had also started to define itself in a different manner, especially within the new Gentile culture.

Currently, thousands of Jews living in Israel have migrated from the former Soviet Union. The Orthodox Jews do not accept them as Jews in spite of the fact that they have Jewish ancestry or Jewish spouses. The rabbinical establishment has still not found ways to convert them irrespective of the fact that these migrants speak Hebrew and even serve in the military. This problem has become a heated debate in Israel. Due to the Law of Return, there has been an influx of around one million olim (immigrants) in Israel from the Former Soviet Union. Currently, there are around 300, 000 immigrants from Soviet Union who are now legitimate citizens of Israel but cannot be called Jews according to the Jewish law. Every year, this number keeps on burgeoning by approximately 8000 non Jewish immigrants being added to the State of Israel. Thus, the current ideologies and policies of the Orthodox rabbinic court are causing problems to thousands of would-be converts. These Russian immigrants normally harbor anti-Jew hatred because of the treatment they often receive in Israel. It produces a demographic threat for Israel because a high inception of former Soviet Union Jews also creates a high rate of inter-marriages. Uri Gordon, the former head of Jewish Agency had called the immigration of hundreds and thousands of non-Jewish immigrants as a ‘national suicide.’

The mass conversions of non-Jewish immigrants in Israel into Judaism are considered to be the quick fix for the challenges to the Jewish state. But one needs to understand that the Russians do not have ‘cultural models’ to understand the role of religion. They often critique the entire concept of conversion because find it quite ambiguous to answer if they are joining a nation or joining a religion. In the past, such questions were not explored in a meticulous manner because the religion and the nation were interwoven but lately this fragile connection is shattering and becoming questionable.

Thus, the main demographic challenge for the State of Israel is to maintain an undisputed and clear Jewish majority in the country. The overall Jewry also faces the challenge to maintain the social cohesion between Israel and the diaspora.

Undoubtedly, demography would be one of the prominent and crucial factors defining the future of Jews. To start with, innovative tools and concepts should be used to incorporate the non-Jewish immigration under the Law of Return. Since, Israel does not have a constitution; it becomes even more difficult to integrate the Law of Return with a totally modern context. Secondly, the obstacles that interfere in Jewish marriage should be reduced. Even the kind of hostility which the non-Jews face in their society should be reduced. Thirdly, ‘non-conflict’ interactions between the Jews and the non-Jews should increase so that friendship, proximity and family formation can be enhanced. Fourthly, more importance should be given to the spiritual and knowledge enhancement of the younger generation in Israel.

The cultural needs of the young Jewish adults should be understood at the grassroots level. Fifthly, the orthodox rabbinate should accept and legitimize the conversions carried out in the other denominations of Judaism. For example, reform conversion in Israel should not be challenged. In fact, the State of Israel should accept the validity of conversions that are performed abroad. If the question of conversion is not dealt quite soon, the entire social structure of the Israeli society would get fragmented. At the same time, mass conversions should not become the norm as this would only dilute the Israeli society and citizenship. It would also effect on the future of Zionism and the kind of cultural exposure that the State would render to its people. Moreover, the State of Israel should start demarcating the role of rabbis and their respective political manoeuver.

Until and unless, the positions of rabbis are defined properly, it would be difficult to address the massive immigration influx. The immigration should be done according to the absorptive and demographic capacity of the State. Finally, the former Soviet Union immigrants should be incorporated into Judaism through religious education and understanding of the Jewish culture rather than just rampant conversions and admission into IDF. Its therefore, a matter of great concern for the State of Israel to preserve its Jewish character but also continue to ably manage the relationship it has with the international community.