JERUSALEM -- When Israeli television reporters secretly filmed an Orthodox rabbi taking bribes for a quick Jewish conversion, they exposed more than a fraud scheme. The scandal also highlighted Jewish Orthodoxy's tight control on Israeli life -- even though most citizens do not consider themselves religious.
The report last week -- and subsequent arrest of a second rabbi -- revealed the difficulty of becoming a Jew in a democracy that effectively operates as a theocracy monopolized by the Orthodox rabbinate.
The Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism -- prevalent among U.S. Jews -- consistently have been refused official status in Israel, despite vigorous attempts to gain a foothold.
In Israel, the Orthodox rabbinical courts have the final say over "who is a Jew." Under Israel's Law of Return, anyone born to a Jewish mother or who has converted to Judaism is entitled to Israeli citizenship.
Although the state recognizes conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis outside the country -- notably in America and England -- the only conversions recognized inside the country are those performed by Orthodox rabbis.
Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said his group last fall told a committee of the Israeli Parliament about the bribe solicitation within the Orthodox conversion process, but he said no action was taken.
"The only true answer beyond the need to pursue criminal investigation is to recognize that there is a need for pluralism in Israel," Regev said. "If there were alternatives, such as Reform and Conservative, then people wouldn't be pressured into paying bribes for entering into the Jewish fold."
The problem occurs because many immigrants cannot prove their Jewishness and must undergo conversion, or their spouses are non-Jews who want the full benefits of Israeli citizenship.
The scale of the problem increased enormously with immigration of hundreds of thousands from the former Soviet Union in the last six years, with uncertain Jewish lineage. It also arose with thousands of Ethiopian Jews airlifted to Israel with even more uncertain lineage.
But the Orthodox rabbis will only accept a candidate for conversion who agrees to live a devout life. That means maintaining the kosher dietary laws, sending children to a religious school, fully observing the Sabbath.
Identification as a Jew -- and certification as such -- ensures citizenship in this country. Without certification, a Jew cannot be legally married in Israel or buried in a Jewish cemetery. There is no civil marriage ceremony in Israel.
For the minority Christians and Muslims in Israel, these matters are handled by their churches and mosques.
"Within the Orthodox rabbinate today, especially but not only in Israel, it has become fashionable to practice the most limiting conditions for accepting converts," said Zvi Zohar, a researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author of a book on conversion and Jewish identify. "Tens of thousands of people living in Israel under the Law of Return want to be members of Israeli society. But because of the way the rabbinate handles this, it makes it perfectly impossible for them."
The Orthodox in Israel have vehemently resisted attempts to diminish their exclusive control over religious and family life here.
David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, conveyed exclusive power to the Orthodox to gain their support in establishing the country. Ever since then, the religious parties have held pivotal power in most of Israel's coalition governments. In addition to their authority, they receive considerable funds to operate religious schools.
The religious parties are especially powerful in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Legislation pending in Israel's parliament would solidify the Orthodoxy's control by explicitly outlawing Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel.
The bribery scandal will shake the debate.
David Clayman, the Israeli representative to the American Jewish Congress who is a Conservative rabbi, was not surprised by the fraud allegations.
"The phenomenon is not any different than any other black market ring or activity in an area of human endeavor when governments try to oppress their people," said Clayman. "Black markets prosper when the demand far exceeds the supply."
$15,000 bribe alleged
The incident reported last week involved two rabbis, one of whom allegedly accepted $15,000 to expedite a conversion of a non-Jewish woman. It takes at least a year of study for a non-Jew to complete the conversion process.
The television program, "Fact," sent a reporter and a Peruvian woman to visit a rabbi. They posed as a couple wanting to marry. The couple approached Rabbi Michael Dushinsky, who oversees kosher matters for the Labor and Social Affairs ministry. They explained that the woman was pregnant, and they needed a fast conversion so they could marry.