Conversion Bill Debate Evidence of American Jews' Increasing Discontent with Israel

Article excerpt

In July, an Israeli parliamentary committee advanced a bill that would give the chief rabbinate, the religious authority in Israel run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, the sole power to decide which conversions to Judaism are accepted. The bill overturns an Israeli Supreme Court decision ensuring eligibility for Israeli citizenship by Jews converted by rabbis from all branches of Judaism.

"Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, which have been battling for years for more rights in Israel, saw the committee vote as a threat to their efforts to strengthen their legitimacy in Israel," reported The Washington Post on July 13. "The chief rabbinate already holds a monopoly on such rituals as marriage and divorce."

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, declared: "It sets us back 20 years in terms of the advances that were made. The practical implication of this bill is one that we are very, very concerned and angry about. The bill delegitimizes most of North American Jewry." Beyond this, he said, it brings back the question of "who has the authority to determine anyone's Jewish identity."

In an op-ed in the July 15 New York Times titled "The Diaspora Need Not Apply," Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet Magazine, which covers Jewish life and culture, noted that, "If passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births, marriages and deaths-and, through them, the fundamental question of Jewish identity-in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis. The problem is not simply that some of these rabbinical functionaries, who are paid by the state and courted by politicians, are demonstrably corrupt. Rather, it is that the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world's Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government's definition of Judaism for all Jews....

"If this bill passes," Newhouse warned, "future historians will inevitably wonder why...Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren't rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren't legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews."

"The bill delegitimizes most of North American Jewry."

Jewish U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) circulated a letter asking fellow American Jewish lawmakers to join him in condemning the controversial Israeli measure. Among those signing were Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). The Jewish Federation of North America expressed support for the Senate letter: "We welcome any expression of commitment from influential Jews to maintain the unity of the Jewish people and the dangers posed by this divisive legislation," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy.

As a result of the American Jewish opposition to the legislation, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he would oppose the controversial bill, saying that it would "tear apart the Jewish people." He proposed a six-month moratorium, during which Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, would convene what some described as a "dialogue table." To date, however, there has been no visible progress toward the proposed deliberation.

Writing in her column in the Aug. 11 National Jewish Post and Opinion, Mary Hoffman asked: "So what happens if Israel...chooses to formally reject a sizeable portion of us? Jews have, historically, been a resilient and determined people, surviving in the face of all kinds of external threats. But internal threats? It's frightening to consider the possibility that the rejection of the majority of Jewish converts (and, by extension, of the Jews who accept them) by a minority of Jews whose vision is tightly limited could become the Law of the Land of Return. I fear not only a possibly terminal rupture for the future of Israel in this but of Judaism itself. …

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