Rabbi Michael Melchior is well aware that the odds are against him succeeding in his effort to improve Israel-diaspora relations. “Most issues that come across my desk will fail,” the Israeli minister of Israeli Society and the World Jewish Community told The Jewish Week in an interview here on Monday.
“We are at that delicate stage where our religious leaders recognize that issues are tearing us apart as a people, but they are not yet willing to compromise. Still,” said Israel’s first cabinet minister to deal with diaspora relations, “we have to make the attempt.”
Rabbi Melchior was in New York for several days of seemingly non-stop meetings and speeches before heading to Atlanta, where he will address the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, the major annual convention of North American Jewry. He knows that relations have been strained in recent years between Israel and American Jewry over issues of religious pluralism, primarily the acceptance of non-Orthodox converts in Israel. He will stress tolerance, unity and open-mindedness, and while he does not have an answer, his message is that he is willing to listen to any and all proposals, and the conviction that the problem will not be resolved by any one solution.
He has, in recent days, voiced support for a technical solution to the conversion crisis, which would remove the word “Jewish” from national identity cards, and he has suggested that Conservative and Reform rabbis perform conversions, though they would not be accepted by the chief rabbinate as halachic, or according to Jewish law. Rabbi Melchior also favors the conversion institutes set up as a result of the Ne’eman Commission last year, which are staffed by educators from all religious streams.
“Maybe what we need is a package deal, a variety of efforts” to deal with what he calls the “potentially explosive” issue of conversions. He noted that more than 200,000 Israelis who have come in recent years from the former Soviet Union are not Jewish by any standards, and their numbers are growing. This year the percentage of non-Jewish immigrants rose to 53.2 percent, and Rabbi Melchior says it is possible that the percentage could increase to 70 or 80 percent in the near future.
“We need a plan,” he said.
Some have called for changing the Law of Return, which gives Israeli citizenship to anyone with a close Jewish relative, so as to prevent the rising number of Israelis who are not Jewish. Others, including Rabbi Melchior, feel a sacred duty to maintain the law, as a mainstay of the Jewish state.
Ferment about the conversion issue is growing, as all sides sense its importance in determining the future character of Israel. In recent weeks, Israel’s High Court of Justice postponed until April a hearing to compel the state to recognize a conversion performed by the Conservative movement in Israel. At the same time, the court permitted the Conservative and Reform movements to expand the hearing to include about 50 similar cases, and postponed all discussion of non-Orthodox conversions until then.
Rabbi Melchior figures that gives him less than six months to reach some kind of compromise among the religious streams, since he believes that a court-enforced ruling would be harmful to Israeli society. Questions of religious status should not be decided by the courts or the Knesset, he says, but by religious leaders.
“Israeli society is drifting in two opposite directions,” he said, describing a post-Zionist secular segment that has little use or tolerance for religion, and a “reactionary nationalist, religious” group that has diminishing respect for government authority. “If we don’t create an alternative, inside and outside of Israel, as our constituency, we will have accomplished nothing,” he said.
Though his ministry has little funding (about $2 million) and, some say, political clout, Rabbi Melchior insists that he can compensate by being creative and building partnerships with government agencies, private organizations and the religious streams in the United States. He would like to see a massive Jewish education program in the former Soviet Union, and says it should be funded and supported by all interested parties. He is also enthusiastic about holding dialogues with Christian and Muslim leaders in the Middle East, insisting that peace cannot come to the region until it is supported by all faiths.