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by Julian Kossoff


Within the Jewish world, conversion remains the major cause of friction.

The Orthodox despise what they consider the "Judaism-lite" conversions supplied by the reformers and progressives — the most popular route into the faith — offering instead only the religious equivalent of an SAS survival course as an unrealistic alternative.

At the biggest Jewish school in the UK, JFS, this has led to disaster recently.

A pupil was rejected because his mother was "only" a reform convert resulting in the earthquake decision by the High Court that the school was acting in a racist manner, placing a large question mark over the future of a burgeoning Jewish day school movement in the UK.

In Israel the Orthodox rabbis have an iron grip on the conversion process and resist any attempts to allow liberal Jews a look-in.

But there is no global standard of Orthodox conversion. Some Beth Dins (religious courts) are stricter than others - with the London court being amongst the most rigid - creating the surreal proposition that a person can be recognised as a Jew in one territory and not another.

Basically, no one respects anyone else.

Historically, the key to the Jewish reluctance to convert non-Jews was an unwillingness to provoke the host Christian/Muslim community. But as a survival strategy that's now backfiring; in a post-Christian world that fear is no longer relevant, while the demographics aren't looking good.

A low birth rate and assimilation mean you'll struggle to count 15 million Jewish souls (that figure would be over 35 million if the Holocaust had never happened) on the planet today. Anglo Jewry's ranks have thinned from 450,000 postwar to fewer than 300,000 today, for example.

Time for some blue sky thinking.

Instead of the application-only approach, let's throw the doors of the synagogues open to newcomers.

Conversion, instead of being a source of inter-tribal conflict, could be the antidote for our disputes with others; let's encourage the Palestinians to convert to Judaism.

Forget the bloodletting and the never-ending-going-nowhere negotiations for a two state solution; lets make the West Bank Palestinians Jewish; argument over, shalom, salaam.

Why not?

Palestinians already live in ("Greater") Israel, share beliefs on monotheism, deitary laws and circumcision, and due to the fact that all their towns are surrounded by Israeli army checkpoints, speak good Hebrew.

There are Palestinian Christians, why not Palestinian Jews?

During a recent debate in Israel about loosening the conversion requirement, a rabbi warned that it would encourage Palestinian 'flag of convenience Jews' looking to share in Israel's economic good fortune; so it would appear there is tentative interest already.

Remember everyone laughed when Theodore Herzl came up with the idea of modern Zionism (from Lublin to Los Angeles they said: he's meshugga) but he proved you've got to think big if a people want to change their destiny.

History also provides precedents of mass conversions to Judaism: North Africa's Berber Jews at the beginning of the first millennium, while a thousand years later the land of the Khazars in Asia minor was a Jewish-led state (the only other in history) that thrived for a couple of centuries.

Ethiopian Jewry is another case in point, as are the hundreds of thousands of Russians who migrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many thousands were only faintly Jewish and others just weren't Jewish at all but they have been reclaimed by the Jewish state anyhow.

Then of course there is the legend of the ten lost tribes of Israel, mingled with the mystical narrative of the wandering Jew.

Nations named as lost tribe material include the Kurds, the Afghan Pashtuns, the Japanese, the Irish, the Lemba tribe of South Africa, the Igobi of Nigeria, one of the smaller Chinese ethnic groups and the Native Americans.

There is even a strand of thought called British Israelism and it is often accompanied by the belief that the British Royal Family is directly descended from the line of King David.

Baseless myths? Indiana Jones fantasies? Maybe. Though in the last decade the Bnei Menashe, a 9,000-strong group living on the remote jungle of north east India, claiming ancestry from the son of Joseph, were converted (back) to Judaism by an Israeli chief rabbi.

I would also offer up one more group for at least honorary Jewish status: the US taxpayer.

For decades they have willingly gifted Israel billions of their hard-earned tax dollars, their governments have helped it defeat sworn enemies with supplies of state-of-the-art weaponry and their emissaries have shown unshakable solidarity on a hostile international stage. That level of loyalty deserves recognition.

So a quick back-of-the fag packet calculation puts this fanciful world Jewish population at approaching a billion, resulting in a happy situation whereby people in every corner of every continent are able to say, "some of my best friends are Jewish".

Julian Kossoff is a journalist for He previously worked at the Jewish Chronicle as a senior reporter. He has written extensively on race and religion.

This article appeared August 2009 in the Telegraph (UK) mid-east-peace-let-palestinians-be-jewish/


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