An Aversion to Conversion

An Aversion to Conversion

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 The tragically divisive “conversion bill”, now making its way through the Knesset, rightfully has American Jews up in arms.  If passed, the bill would reinforce the State-sanctioned religious monopoly already held in Israel by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (haredi) minority and further distance the country from the “freedom of religion” guaranteed by its Declaration of Independence.

But the blistering response to the bill issued this week by the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the American Jewish Committee, also demonstrates a curious irony in the American Jewish-Israel relationship: It’s apparently acceptable to slam the Israeli government, as long as it’s about policy within the Green Line, not beyond it.

For those of you who don’t receive an RSS feed from “the Knesset Channel”, Israel’s version of C-Span, here’s a quick recap:

After months of stops and starts, Knesset member David Rotem, of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, recently finalized a conversion deal with Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties – the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi ‘United Torah Judaism’.  Under the deal, a new law would grant Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, controlled by the Orthodox and haredi communities, ultimate authority over all conversions to Judaism.

(Until now, the ‘who is a convert?’ question has been answered by the Israeli High Court’s relatively liberal interpretation of the country’s Law of Return, which has recognized non-Orthodox conversions performed abroad.)

The quid pro quo for Yisrael Beiteinu was the haredi agreement to make the current Orthodox/haredi conversion process in Israel a tad more convert-friendly: Under the Rotem bill, potential converts would have easier access to those Orthodox rabbis considered somewhat less strict in their conversion demands.

This issue is considered important for Yisrael Beiteinu’s supporters from the Former Soviet Union, tens of thousands of whom were “Jewish enough” to immigrate under the Law of Return, but are not defined as “religiously Jewish” for the purposes of marriage, divorce and adoption (all controlled by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox monopoly).  These immigrants desperately need a State-approved conversion.

This past spring, Rotem visited the US and met with American Jewish leaders, promising them that his legislation would in no way undermine the status of the non-Orthodox movements.

So when these same leaders recently got wind of what the Yisrael Beiteinu MK was up to, they understandably leapt into action – excoriating Rotem, openly threatening Prime Minister Netanyahu with an imminent rift between Israel and American Jewry, and calling on their members and supporters to influence Israeli policy through emails, faxes and phone calls.

The fate of the bill is still undecided, and one can only hope that the Israeli Prime Minister will rein in his Mad Hatter of a coalition before it’s too late.  (If you‘d like to add your voice, by the way, click here to sign the petition of our friends at the Israel Religious Action Center, where we are currently sponsoring a summer intern, as part of our “Intern in Israel Initiative“.)

But despite the outrage I share over the conversion bill, I feel the need to ask these rhetorical (and mildly sardonic) questions:

  • Why is it “all right” (by mainstream American Jewish standards) to skewer the Israeli government over conversion, but not over settlements?
  • Why is it ‘anti-Israel’ to question the Israeli government’s judgment when it comes to the Occupation, but not when issues of Jewish identity are concerned?
  • Indeed, why is it all right to tell Israel how to conduct its domestic policy, offensive though it may be, but not all right to comment on human rights violations beyond the country’s Green Line?
  • Finally: Why is it legitimate to criticize a policy that would have relatively little material effect on American Jewry (after all, the law applies to legitimacy in Israel, not the US); but not okay to warn about Israeli policies that, in this day and age, can have serious repercussions for Jewish Americans, and for the United States generally?

The answer, of course, is that all these critiques are legitimate and all these conversations are welcome.

The Jews of Israel and the Jews of America are members of a single people with profound, binding ties that started in the past, continue in the present and – hopefully – will stretch well into the future.  But to preserve these bonds of peoplehood, it is vital that  American Jews be allowed – no encouraged – to engage in vibrant, open, unrestricted dialogue with Israel about the problems that both are facing.

A few final thoughts:

The conversion bill troubles me not only because of my opposition to the Orthodox/haredi monopoly from a cultural and religious standpoint.  It troubles me because, like the settlement enterprise, it is antithetical to Zionism.

The anti-Zionism of the ideological settlers is manifested in their preference for domination of the entire biblical Land of Israel, even if this is bound to turn Israel into a Jewish-minority state in the not-exceedingly-distant future.

The conversion bill is more post- than anti-Zionist: In its obliviousness to the interests and concerns of the vast majority of non-Israeli Jews, the bill suggests that Israel might soon cease to define itself as the haven and guardian of the Jewish people worldwide.

Israel’s citizens have every legal right to take such a step of course, but it would mark a serious departure from the Zionist premise that Israel is something of a shared homeland for all Jews, wherever they may be. The ominous language employed by the Jewish Federations of North America – warning that the bill would “drive a wedge” between Israel and the Diaspora and cause “significant damage” to the Diaspora-Israel relationship – should be understood in this broader, long-term context.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ron Skolnik
Executive Director
Meretz USA

By | 2010-07-16T20:56:28-04:00 July 16th, 2010|Blog, Religious Pluralism|0 Comments

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