Upset Over Uproar, Some in Israel Wonder What All the Fuss Is About

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 21, 2010, issue of July 30, 2010.
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Under the current system, Israelis who wish to convert to Judaism must go before a state-run Conversion Authority, which operates under the supervision of the country’s avowedly Orthodox Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. Amar appoints the members of the authority — only male rabbis, of course — and has the final say on all matters of Jewish law.

If the controversial “conversion bill” now before the Knesset actually becomes law, the authority to control conversions in Israel will rest with… Shlomo Amar.

The piercing uproar over the pending legislation, led by an unusually strident chorus of Diaspora leaders, has been echoed in Israel by proponents of religious pluralism and political leaders, including, recently, the prime minister. But many other religious leaders here say the international outcry is based on misinformation that inflates the true damage that might occur if the bill becomes law.

“There is the false pretense of a dramatic shift in Israel’s policy, and it’s not a dramatic shift, it’s a minor shift,” said Donniel Hartman, who is the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute’s co-director and a proponent of ending the Orthodox monopoly and introducing pluralism in the public sphere. “This is not the State of Israel rejecting liberal Jews, but reiterating a rejection that has existed for the last 60 years.”

“When you exaggerate a crisis, it has significant importance in terms of the Diaspora community,” he added, “which doesn’t need much to walk away from Israel.”

What’s become known as the “conversion bill” is actually an amendment to the long-standing Chief Rabbinate Law and was proposed by David Rotem of the predominantly secular Yisrael Beiteinu party. Israel is home to an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 people who are immigrants or the children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and who are Jewish according to civil law but not according to religious law. While some are satisfied with their status, many wish to convert, either for reasons of identity or, more commonly, to handle practical matters such as marriage and burial, which are controlled by the rabbinic authorities.

Israelis across the religious spectrum, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — everyone, it seems, but the Haredi community — believe that the Conversion Authority, which converted 6,212 people last year, is working too slowly. Rotem’s bill proposes an end to the authority’s monopoly by also granting municipal rabbis the power to convert. These local rabbis are the Chief Rabbinate’s delegates in cities and towns, but they vary in ideological outlook, with some taking stricter lines on Jewish law and some more lenient. The bill permits potential converts to shop around and choose the most appropriate rabbi they can find.

Local rabbis had this power until a decade ago, when the Chief Rabbinate surrendered it to Special Conversion Courts, which later became the Conversion Authority. But some ultra-Orthodox members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition were worried that the local rabbis would be too lenient, so they persuaded Rotem to further amend the bill to give final power to the Chief Rabbinate.

Reform and Conservative leaders see this as a dangerous and exclusionary extension of Orthodox power, and as a move that delegitimizes their conversion operations, which convert about 300 people a year. They also fear that by codifying the Chief Rabbinate’s power over domestic conversions, Israel will head down a slippery slope toward excluding Jews who received non-Orthodox conversions in the Diaspora from being able to immigrate under the Law of Return.

Gilad Kariv, head of the Israeli Reform movement, said that the bill “may be the end of Reform and Conservative conversion in Israel,” and Yizhar Hess, his counterpart in the Israeli Conservative movement, said that it will “send a strong message to world Jewry that only Orthodox can live and be respected in Israel.”

But Orthodox leaders dismiss these statements as hype — because liberal conversions conducted in Israel do not enable marriage or eligibility for the Law of Return anyhow, and because Rotem has declared that the bill will not affect the acceptability of overseas conversion for the Law of Return. The bill “only concerns conversion in Israel,” he told the Forward, adding, “It’s got nothing to do with Jews in the U.S., nothing to do with Reform or Conservative in America.”

Daniel Hershkowitz, leader of Jewish Home, the main religious-Zionist party, said that the outcry over the bill is a “question of misunderstanding.” And David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, a powerful alliance of moderate religious-Zionist rabbis, said that he is disappointed by Reform and Conservative opposition as the bill “has nothing to do with their conversions.” He argued that the movements had turned the bill into a high-profile issue in a bid to stir anger and rally Diaspora Jews against the long-standing Orthodox monopoly on public religious life in Israel.

Both Stav and Hershkowitz believe that the bill should be passed. It “will have a tremendous effect on the country,” according to Stav, and Hershkowitz said, “Bottom line, I think this bill improves the situation.”

Hartman disagrees, claiming that the bill is a “political placebo” to allow Yisrael Beiteinu to keep its election promise to its largely Russian supporters, and that because of Haredi influence within the rabbinate, it will not improve the situation. It is a “complete political manipulation of the Russian community for something that will have no benefit,” Hartman said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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