On Conversion, Alienating Israel’s Friends

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 14, 2010, issue of July 23, 2010.
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Considering all the threats Israelis face right now — what with Hezbollah missiles to the north, Iran’s nuclear program to the east, war crimes lawsuits in Europe and Gaza blockade-busters on the high seas — you might think the last thing they’d be looking for would be a fight with their closest ally, the American Jewish community.

You might think that, but you’d be wrong. The Knesset is currently hard at work stirring up the most serious crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations in a decade.

The issue, as usual, is conversion. A key Knesset committee approved a bill in mid-July that would tighten ultra-Orthodox control over conversions to Judaism and push the main streams of American Judaism — Reform and Conservative — further than ever from Israeli legitimacy. The measure now moves to the Knesset floor.

The bill is the handiwork of David Rotem, chair of the Knesset’s law committee and a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. The original version authorized local municipal rabbis (every Israeli town and city has its own mini-chief rabbi) to arrange conversions on their own say-so. Conversion is now restricted to a handful of regional and national rabbinic bodies. The idea was to smooth the path for some 350,000 Russian immigrants who aren’t considered Jewish under rabbinic law and would like to be.

At present the immigrants are caught in a legal limbo, denied normal rights of marriage, burial, adoption and more. Few can become Jewish, because byzantine Israeli regulations make conversion nearly impossible. Rotem, an Orthodox, Israeli-born apparatchik in a secularist, Russian-immigrant-dominated party, thought he was the guy to step into the breach. By bringing more rabbis into the process, he figured he could break up the logjam and generate more conversions.

Rotem boasted that his law would give would-be converts the freedom to shop around and look for an agreeable town rabbi. This, he said, would free candidates from the “whims” of the so-called special conversion courts, autonomous bodies that had been created in the late 1990s and given sole control over conversion.

Early in the spring he ran into problems with another party in the governing Netanyahu coalition, United Torah Judaism. The party’s leaders, speaking for the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, complained that letting every village rabbi conduct his own conversions would lower standards and result in a rash of counterfeit Jews. They demanded that the national Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem be given direct supervisory authority over the municipal conversions, to keep them honest.

It was a curious demand. The Haredi community doesn’t recognize the Chief Rabbinate’s authority. A government body, the Chief Rabbinate is the official seat of Israel’s state religion. Traditionally, that’s supposed to be Religious Zionism, the Israeli version of Modern Orthodoxy. Over the years, though, the Chief Rabbinate has fallen under the control of the leading Haredi rabbis. Few today regard the Chief Rabbinate as anything more than a Haredi front operation.

Rotem innocently accepted the Haredi amendment and added Chief Rabbinate authority to his bill. Now the roof fell in. Leaders of American Reform and Conservative Judaism erupted in a barrage of protest. They charged that the bill would undo the modest gains they had wrung from the Israeli system after decades of battle and leave them worse off than ever.

Their biggest gain had been the removal of conversion from the Chief Rabbinate’s hands a dozen years ago and the creation of a special conversion system in which the liberal movements were allowed a minor speaking part in preparing candidates for conversion. The Rotem bill would likely cripple this system by putting the Chief Rabbinate back in charge.

More ominously, the Americans warned that the bill would sour relations between Israel and the masses of American Jews by placing their Judaism beyond the pale in Israeli law. Leaders of the federated Jewish philanthropic world seconded the protests, warning that donations would suffer. That got Israel’s attention.

In April, Rotem went on an American listening tour to hear firsthand about the objections (which baffled him, he said, since his bill said nothing about Jews in America).

Back in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with American Jewish leaders, expressed sympathy and assigned Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, himself a Russian immigrant (and head of the main Israeli beneficiary of American Jewish community federations’ largesse), as mediator. Rotem agreed to put his bill on hold to give Sharansky time to negotiate.

But on July 12, Rotem brought the bill before his committee unannounced, called for a vote and won approval 5 to 3. All three committee members from Netanyahu’s Likud party mysteriously absented themselves. The next stop, barring outside interference, is the Knesset floor.

What’s most mysterious about the affair is that Rotem’s bill will actually make conversions more difficult, not less, and if he didn’t know that when he started, he surely does by now. Conversions began slowing down decades ago as the Chief Rabbinate embraced a Haredi doctrine that genuine conversion must result in the adoption of a fully Orthodox lifestyle. The Haredim argue, in effect, you can’t apply to become a bad Jew.

The special conversion courts were created by the government in 1998, following years of Israel-Diaspora negotiations, with the aim of dialing back Haredi restrictions. Autonomous from the Chief Rabbinate, the new system was headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading Religious Zionist moderate. Over the next decade an estimated 40,000 converts passed through.

Then, in 2008, a local rabbi in Ashdod took the virtually unheard-of step of annulling the conversion of a woman who had become Jewish 15 years earlier, claiming she was not observing Orthodox law. The ruling was upheld by a rabbinical appeals court under the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, which went on to question the validity of all conversions performed by the Druckman courts. Since the system has been in chaos.

Rotem has done a brilliant job of making a bad situation worse. He set out to free his party’s voters from Haredi restrictions and promptly became a stooge of the Haredim. He stumbled into a transatlantic war he’d never heard of and got the sides fighting again. After agreeing to get the heck out of the way, he suddenly reemerged as a one-man army, though nobody knows who or what he’s fighting for now.

The best guess? Rotem’s boss, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Somewhere between the Israel-Turkey flotilla crisis in May and Netanyahu’s White House visit in July — both of which left him sidelined — Lieberman must have decided he was tired of being made a fool of and decided to turn the tables on the prime minister. And as everyone knows, if you want to make someone a fool, it’s best to send a fool to do the job.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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