A bill in the Knesset that would effectively amend the Law of Return, making many converts to Judaism ineligible, has provoked an unusual backlash from the American Jewish establishment.
The legislation, drafted by David Rotem, a Knesset member from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, was originally intended to grant greater authority to municipal rabbis to perform conversions. But, while in the Knesset’s Law Committee, it was amended in ways that gained it fierce opposition by both United Torah Judaism and Shas; those religious parties in the government coalition worried that the law would erode their own power over conversions. The bill has now precipitated a coalition crisis and its fate is in limbo.
What has offended American Jews, however, is a paragraph that would invalidate the citizenship of people who arrived in Israel as non-Jews and then converted. Meant ostensibly to keep non-Jewish immigrants to Israel from taking advantage of the Law of Return, it would also effectively bar a group of legitimate converts already in Israel from gaining full citizenship.
In a statement released on March 10, the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization representing 157 federations, expressed strong opposition to the bill.
“We implore the Israeli government to seriously consider the concerns and sensitivities of Diaspora Jews before acting on such proposals,” the statement said. “Changes to the Law of Return could adversely affect many members of our community by preventing them from making aliyah and becoming Israeli citizens. Any action of this type would be an affront to world Jewry.”
A letter was also hand delivered by federation leaders to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.
The move was a rare one for an organization that often in lock-step with the Israeli government.
“This is not something we do easily or routinely,” said Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the Jewish Federations of North America. Berkofsky said that last time he remembered such a letter being addressed to the Israeli government was a number of years ago, over the Falash Mura situation in Ethiopia.
Other organizations have joined the federations in their opposition, most notably the Jewish Agency. Its high profile chairman, Natan Sharansky, spoke to a group of federation leaders from major cities this week in an effort to rally their support against the proposed bill.
The American Jewish Committee has also sent a letter to Netanyahu expressing its anger at the legislation, as has the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative rabbis, and the Reform movement.
“The proposed legislation will lead to a situation in which Jews-by-choice would be treated differently and denied recognition as Jews under the Law of Return, in direct contradiction of Israeli Supreme Court rulings,” said the Reform movement statement. “Additionally, it may lead to the delegitimization of all non-orthodox conversions performed outside of the State of Israel.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman