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.