In the bad old days, not all that long ago, an abused wife who finally dared to turn to the authorities would often be told to go back home and try harder, for the sake of "shalom bayit" (household harmony).
Although shalom bayit is certainly a laudable value, and much to be desired, we now recognize that response to have been a form of institutional abuse. Regardless of intention, regardless of the sincerity, or innocence of the motivation behind it, institutional blindness to suffering and oppression amounts to complicity with it.
As abused women once were oppressed in the name of shalom bayit, converts to Judaism are now being oppressed in the name of The Eternal Family, a code word used by the supporters of a bill proposed by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. The bill would deny Jews by conversion equal access to the Law of Return.
Aliyah to Israel is at an 18-year low. So it is all the more remarkable that instead of speaking out against the imposition of an additional burden on converts who want to make Aliyah, Jewish organizations have been silent, or are scrambling to develop a fast track for themselves, within the bill's discriminatory framework.
Cynics among us suggest that conversion is just one more issue in the political power-grab of a multi-party religious democracy. The office of the chief rabbi, say those cynics, is a mouthpiece for powerful players in Israeli religious fundamentalist parties.
Others, less cynical and more practical, say that this law is aimed at fixing the current system, which is sometimes misused. They worry about those who might pretend to convert and join the Jewish people for personal gain.
Real woundsThe cynics or the pragmatists might have a point. I don't know. I'm not an Israeli politician. I'm an American psychologist. And as a psychologist I know that to question the personal status of someone who converted to Judaism is to whip her with a vicious triple-tailed whip made of the following components: Public humiliation, threat of rejection, and social stigma.
These inflict real wounds. They cause real harm. Given a choice, most people would prefer to be hit with a stick than to be humiliated, stigmatized, or threatened with rejection. Physical injuries heal more easily. Regardless of the stated intention or motivation behind the Chief Rabbinate's proposed bill, it has already inflicted harm on the vulnerable by making them feel insecure.
The irony of the institutional abuse of converts is that it comes from the very institution that ought to feel charged with the duty to protect them. Members of the Rabbinate have studied religious texts that explain the convert's exquisite emotional tenderness, and advise taking particular care with their feelings ("Do not taunt him" – Leviticus 19).
There is a religious obligation to avoid calling attention to the convert's status, even in casual conversation, lest she feel diminished. That is the standard against which Rabbi Amar's proposed bill is entirely, completely and irretrievably unacceptable.
Dr. Renee Garfinkel is a clinical psychologist, author and faculty member at the Institute of Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University