Torn Between the Land and the State

Dateline jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Here’s a measure of the political mood in America’s Modern Orthodox community: At a convention last week in Jerusalem of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — the main voice of Modern Orthodoxy — guest of honor Ehud Olmert won less applause than the war in Iraq did.

Olmert received a few seconds of polite clapping when he arrived at the Orthodox Union’s gathering, and a similarly tepid tribute when he left the dais. In between, he inspired more enthusiasm when he praised “the great friend of the State of Israel that resides in the White House” and insisted that “Iraq without Saddam Hussein is so much better for the security and safety of Israel.” During Olmert’s recent Washington visit, such comments about Iraq sparked widespread criticism among Jews and other groups. The O.U., apparently, was one group where they were popular.

More popular, certainly, than Olmert’s positions on Israel’s future. On the O.U. dais, Olmert said nothing of last summer’s disengagement from Gaza, of which he was a major architect. Nor did he mention his campaign promise last spring to withdraw from much of the West Bank. But both subjects hung in the air. Pain over the Gaza pullout remained palpable among O.U. delegates, of whom many identified closely with the pro-settlement majority among Israeli religious Zionists. Olmert’s West Bank plan, shelved last summer but revived this week, is certain to compound the discomfort.

The strains gained formal expression in the convention’s closing session Saturday night. In a resolution dealing with Jerusalem and “Yehuda and Shomron” (the Hebrew names for Judea and Samaria), the O.U. decided that it would henceforth take public positions on “Israeli domestic policies and territorial integrity.” That is, O.U. leaders now have permission to openly oppose Israeli concessions. In the past, the organization has made a point of avoiding public disagreement with the Israeli government. Now, the pieces that make up the O.U. version of support for Israel — backing the government, commitment to the whole Land of Israel — no longer mesh seamlessly.

“We do not necessarily agree with any of the speakers tonight,” Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the O.U.’s executive vice president, told me after Olmert gave his speech. “The fact that we had these people speaking does not mean that we agree with everything they do, or anything they do…. We are honoring the state.”

By “these people,” Weinreb was referring to Olmert and to Shlomo Amar, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, who had appeared earlier and received a much warmer reception than Olmert.

It’s Amar, however, who may well embody a more serious problem for the O.U. As the O.U. delegates were arriving in Jerusalem, the Israeli press published an Amar proposal to amend the Law of Return so that it no longer would grant citizenship to converts to Judaism, no matter who converted them. Even Orthodox Jews-by-choice would not qualify. Their only option for citizenship would be applying for the drawn-out process of naturalization open to non-Jews without Jewish ancestry.

Amar reportedly sent a draft of a bill to Olmert, hoping that the prime minister would submit it to the Knesset. The bill is explicitly a response to the latest stage in a long legal battle, spearheaded by the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, for state recognition of non-Orthodox converts. In past decisions, the Supreme Court has ruled that those who underwent Reform and Conservative conversions abroad must be accepted as Jews under the Law of Return. In a pending case, the Reform center now seeks recognition of those who are undergoing non-Orthodox conversion in Israel itself.

“Based on past experience, there is great danger that the Supreme Court will accept the suit,” says Amar’s draft, as published on the news Web site Ynet. Since non-Orthodox converts accepted as immigrants — and citizens — will not be Jewish under Orthodox law, they will be unable to marry in Israel, according to the bill: “From here to the division of the Jewish people in Israel into two peoples, the distance is not great.” The only way to maintain equality while blocking Reform converts, the bill says, is to remove conversion as a qualification for citizenship.

Yet, as Amar acknowledges, the Law of Return already grants immigration and citizenship rights to non-Jews who have a father or grandfather who is Jewish. Following the mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, more than 270,000 people “with no religious classification” now live in Israel, according to the state’s Central Bureau of Statistics. They speak Hebrew, serve in the army and are part of Jewish society. But they are not Jews according to Halacha. The “division of the Jewish people in Israel” is a present reality, not a future possibility.

Amar makes no secret that his real goal is to head off state recognition of non-Orthodox movements. To do so, he is willing to deny entry to Orthodox converts, as well. As written, his law would exclude even a child adopted and converted at birth and brought up her entire life as an observant Jew — and possibly that convert’s children. “For 2,700 years, Jewish tradition has been ‘You shall love the convert’,” said Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who heads Itim, a not-for-profit organization helping Israelis navigate the state rabbinic bureaucracy. “Now for the first time, we are saying, ‘You are not full members of the Jewish people’.”

Ironically, Amar has taken a position more befitting a determined secularist. Secular Israelis see “Jew” as primarily an ethnic or national category, not a religious one. Hard-line secularists have occasionally proposed removing conversion as grounds for citizenship, or even rescinding the Law of Return to eliminate the role of clergy in opening the doors to Israel.

A classic religious Zionist position, by contrast, holds that the Jews are indeed a nation but one created by the giving of the Torah. A convert, by accepting Torah, joins the nation as well as the religion. The Law of Return’s recognition of converts’ Jewishness affirms the religious aspect of Jewish nationhood. Now the chief rabbinate — historically seen by American Modern Orthodoxy as another symbol of Israel’s Jewish religious legitimacy — wants to change the law. Amar’s proposal is unlikely to make it far in the legislative pipeline. But it does reveal the chief rabbi’s views and priorities. Non-Orthodox opposition is certain. How the Orthodox will respond is less certain.

“We have not formulated a response” to Amar’s idea, the O.U.’s Weinreb said after the chief rabbi’s appearance at the convention. Weinreb stressed that the OU, as a lay body, would “look to our sister organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, which will express an opinion, I’m sure, on Rabbi Amar’s proposal.”

In doing so, the American rabbis will face an unexpected fissure in the Modern Orthodox relationship with Israel, one that could cut even deeper than Olmert’s peace plans.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.