A bill now stalled in the Knesset has once again opened up a rift between Israel and North American Jewry over the question of who is a Jew.
The touchy issue, exposing the divide between the pluralistic Jewish Diaspora and Israel, where the Orthodox establishment has authority over virtually all functions of religious life, was triggered almost inadvertently. Yisrael Beiteinu, a party in the government coalition, proposed a bill that would give municipal rabbis authority to perform conversions — a move aimed largely at the 300,000 Israeli immigrants who are not considered Jewish according to Halacha, or religious law, and have a difficult time converting under the current centralized system. But as the legislation evolved in the Knesset’s law committee through February and into early March, it had to be amended in order to appease the religious parties and the concerns of the Interior Ministry.
The version that emerged at the beginning of March seemed to undermine the bill’s original purpose and served only to reaffirm the power of the rabbinate. It immediately raised the ire of American Jewish organizations and nearly caused a coalition crisis. As a result, lawmaker David Rotem, the bill’s architect, said on March 15 that the bill will be put aside until after the Passover break. He promised to involve Diaspora Jews in any future drafts.
This slowdown of the legislative process has not, however, appeased the wide swathe of religious and communal organizations that have expressed their anger over the measure and have demanded, more broadly, to have their views taken into account in any future debate that touches on conversion or seeks to alter the Law of Return.
Instead of decentralizing the conversion process and handing over authority to more moderate local rabbis, the bill — bending to pressure by two parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas — reaffirmed the power of the Chief Rabbinate to have the final word on conversions. But it was another clause added to the bill that provoked the American Jewish backlash: Anyone converting to Judaism in Israel would not be automatically eligible for citizenship through the Law of Return. This provision would also be applied retroactively, stripping any converts of their citizenship.
Observers say that the clause was included by the Interior Ministry out of its concerns that foreign workers might take advantage of the Law of Return, converting to Judaism in order to achieve legal status in the country.
As a result, the bill immediately alienated those who are against any effort to distinguish between Jews by ancestry and Jews by choice. Even though the clause in question applied only to Orthodox conversions within Israel, American Jewish leaders said they felt the need to respond sharply to a move that could open the door to more wide-ranging changes in the definition of Jewish identity and in determining who is eligible to make aliyah.
Both the Reform and Conservative movements issued strong rebukes March 9 after the bill was made public. Echoing their concerns was the Jewish Federations of North America, the powerful umbrella organization representing 157 federations. The JFNA delivered a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “This is not something we do easily or routinely,” said Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the group. Berkofsky said that the 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.
Joining this broad North American opposition was the Jewish Agency, whose chairman, Natan Sharansky, has made strengthening Israel-Diaspora ties one of his objectives.
On March 15, Rotem, who had
already decided to delay a committee vote on the bill because of a lack of support from the religious parties, also met with a delegation of American Jewish leaders and effectively acquiesced to their demands.
Sharansky and representatives from the JFNA, including Jay Sanderson, the new president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, told of their problems with the bill. They emerged with a promise by Rotem that he would go forward only after addressing their concerns.
“We have received assurances that we will be consulted in this process so that the views of world Jewry are taken into consideration,” Sharansky said following the meeting.
In a letter to Jewish Agency emissaries sent out on March 17, Sharansky went even further, declaring a victory. “This effort strengthened our demands and allowed us to influence the Israeli leadership regarding the bill, preventing potentially disasterous consequences,” he wrote.
Despite the resolution of the immediate conflict, many American Jewish leaders say they are still angry about what appeared to be an attempt to make legislation that they felt would ultimately affect Jews in the Diaspora without first involving them in any way.
“Part of the visceral reaction was that this was viewed as a slap in the face,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “This had all the makings of an end run around pluralism.”
The original statement from the JFNA implored the Israeli government to “seriously consider the concerns and sensitivities of Diaspora Jews,” asserting that passing the bill, “would be an affront to world Jewry.”
For the progressive religious movements, the concern seemed to be the fear of a slippery slope. “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,” Reform leaders said in a statement. “Additionally, it may lead to the delegitimization of all non-Orthodox conversions performed outside of the State of Israel.”
The large Orthodox groups in the United States have not commented on the bill. Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, said that his organization does not generally take a position on Israeli legislative matters.
Seth Farber, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who is the founder and director of ITIM, an Israeli organization that helps people navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, especially on issues of marriage and conversion, sees the bill as more of a political ploy by Yisrael Beiteinu. In his reading, the legislation will have no effect on the hardships faced by converts.
“Lieberman is the only winner here,” Farber said, referring to the Yisrael Beiteinu leader, Avigdor Lieberman. “He looks like he tried to do something for the converts without having to do anything.”
Farber said he was involved with the drafting of a proposal to replace the problematic clause amending the Law of Return. Instead of denying citizenship to all converts in Israel, it would apply only to those who had been living in Israel illegally for the previous six months. This way, it would cover the Interior Ministry’s concerns about foreign workers while not adversely hurting legitimate converts to Judaism. Farber said that though all the parties involved in the drafting of the bill had looked at the proposal favorably, its adoption has not yet been confirmed.
Even if this part of the bill is changed, Farber said, it will not significantly alter the reality facing converts in Israel. As it is written now, the proposed law would still give the Chief Rabbinate authority over the newly created municipal courts, thereby negating any kind of liberalizing effect they could have had. Farber also sees the outcry from American Jewry as equally self-serving. Just as the religious parties are afraid of losing their authority, liberal American Jews don’t want any change in the status quo that will adversely affect them. Ultimately ignored, he said, are the people for whom the bill was created.
“As usual the ultra-Orthodox screamed, the Reform yelled and the converts continued to suffer,” Farber said. “The system is broken.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at email@example.com
This story "Conversion Bill Sparks Unusual Push Back From Diaspora Jews" was written by Gal Beckerman.
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