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Preserving Jewish Unity

In recent days an intense but familiar battle has challenged the Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora. It’s not about the threat of a nuclear Iran, tensions in U.S.-Israel relations or the plight of Gilad Shalit. This time the conflict lies within — timely given the period of Tisha B’Av and our focus on how infighting has threatened the Jewish community through the ages.

Today Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are embroiled in a fierce debate about the very nature of the Jewish state. The debate concerns a bill by David Rotem, a Knesset member from the Yisrael Beiteinu party, to change Israel’s conversion policies. Rotem wanted to give Israel’s municipal rabbis the ability to perform conversions, hoping to allow hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who are not considered Jewish according to Halacha to convert more easily. Rotem’s passion to tackle this issue is laudable.

At the same time, however, Rotem added provisions seemed designed to satisfy other government coalition partners, by handing the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate full authority over all conversions in Israel for the very first time. Further, the bill also mandates that all converts agree to take upon themselves all of Jewish law in order to convert. Finally, the bill, if enacted, could end up threatening the eligibility to become Israeli citizens of some immigrants who have converted to Judaism.

These proposals soured what could have been a positive bill. Worse, they would erode the legal and religious status quo in Israel, set a dangerous precedent of recognizing in law an Orthodox religious monopoly over conversion and send a terrible message that would disenfranchise non-Orthodox Jews worldwide and tear a deep rift between Israel and the Diaspora.

These threats boil down to a vital and even existential question: Does the Jewish state belong to all Jews?

The debate, however, has already created at least one positive outcome. The bill has galvanized a broad coalition of opposition that reaches from religious and political leadership in Israel to the halls of Congress. The Jewish Federations of North America, as the voice of North American Jewry, became deeply involved because we were concerned that Diaspora Jews faced becoming alienated from Israel.

In the past days and months, we partnered in an intense advocacy campaign against the bill with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as a number of Orthodox rabbis and groups.

We were very encouraged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong statement against this bill and his commitment to engage in a full dialogue before any further legislation is presented to the Knesset. Similarly, President Shimon Peres declared his opposition and stated that the unity of the Jewish people was critically important. Natan Sharansky, the Jewish Agency’s chairman, has spoken out forcefully and inspired us as we worked together intensively on this issue. We were also joined by a very large number of party leaders, ministers and members of Knesset from a wide range of political parties, including almost all the representatives from Kadima and Labor.

As we have since this debate erupted, we will continue to work to engage all parties in a dialogue, and to find a compromise that satisfies all concerns — while still preserving the essential unity of the Jewish people.

And in the days ahead, we will recall the very words of Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, which pledged to solve the problem of the Jewish people’s homelessness “by re-establishing in Eretz Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew.”

Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.

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