Only in Israel. On the day that the U.S. vice president arrived in Israel, reportedly to thwart Israel’s bombing of Iran, and following two days of intensive talks between Israel’s prime minister and President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, the Israeli government almost fell … because of a proposed bill about conversion to Judaism.
How could a conversion bill, which set out to marginally expand the list of rabbis who can perform conversions in Israel, set off a string of events that almost brought the government down? Though hard to imagine, the Israeli government coalition agreements include clauses that call for legislation to improve conversion in Israel. This week, such legislation was discussed in the Knesset law committee, and the proposed bill, which would be a first for the Jewish state, brought on a coalition crisis between the ultra-Orthodox and immigrant parties.
The chaos created by the proposed conversion bill highlights the fact that conversion has become the “threshold” issue for the Jewish world today. Demographics, religious extremism and the politics of power have all played a role in this basic shift in the Jewish agenda. In the past 18 months, the leadership of The Jewish Federations of North America has written letters to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to engage the conversion issue. During the past year, the leadership of American Orthodoxy has engaged in seemingly endless negotiations with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to ensure that their conversions receive acceptance within the Israeli religious establishment. And when Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan gave his annual assessment of the Jewish world and Modern Orthodoxy some weeks ago from his pulpit in Manhattan, he focused on conversion.
Just this week, the American Jewish Committee wrote a strong letter to the Knesset protesting the new conversion law (something once considerably outside its agenda), joining a number of political parties and religious groups in criticism of the proposed legislation, albeit for a variety of reasons.
Clearly the issue is burning.
In the version of the law brought to the Knesset law committee this past Sunday, three reforms were proposed. First, rabbis of cities in Israel who are appointed by the Chief Rabbinate would be allowed to engage in conversion (rather than allowing conversion to be the exclusive province of rabbinical court judges). That would be an improvement.
Second, rabbinical courts that seek to annul conversions would be able to do so only with the approval of the chief rabbi. And thirdly, and here is the eye-opener, individuals who converted in Israel would be ineligible for aliyah.
That third provision seemed to come out of nowhere.
The bill met with opposition on several fronts. The ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel are generally xenophobic, and they see conversion as a stick with which they can impose their ideologies. Since almost all the rabbinical court judges are ultra-Orthodox and since some of the city rabbis are Modern Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox parties opposed the bill vociferously, as it seeks to increase the power of the city rabbis and limit the power of rabbinical court judges. And in fact, a vote on the bill was delayed because of the clout and influence of the ultra-Orthodox in the Knesset.
The bill also met with opposition because it alters one of the legislative untouchables of the Jewish Israeli ethos: the Law of Return. Since any Jew can immigrate to Israel and receive automatic citizenship, the authors of the proposed bill are genuinely concerned that illegal aliens and even terrorists could attempt to exploit conversion in order to achieve citizenship. However, by putting a blanket clause that precludes those who converted in Israel from making aliyah, the bill became preposterous. In principle, a convert to Judaism from overseas would be eligible for aliyah, while a convert who completed his conversion in Israel would be excluded from citizenship. Students, volunteers, or non-Jewish boyfriends and girlfriends of Israelis who completed conversion in Israel would not be granted immediate citizenship, even if they were fully Orthodox.
For now, the bill is in limbo, but the issues raised in the debate place the genuine issues of conversion — identity and the role of the land of Israel as a center for Jewish life — front and center, and for this I am thankful. The Jewish world has ducked these issues interminably, pretending that hakol yehihe b’seder (everything will be OK). As someone who has received more than a thousand phone calls and e-mails from converts and potential converts in the past year, asking for help in navigating the system, I assure you that everything is not OK.
Even if the conversion law passes with some modifications, there is serious need for conversion reform in Israel and around the world. There needs to be more consensus, greater access, and less politics, money and influence regarding this issue. In Israel, expanding the number and type of rabbis who can convert is an important first step in changing what has become a conversion process characterized by chaos. But serious improvements need to be made in the registration process, the courses of study, the rabbinical courts and the issuance of certificates. Greater accountability and transparency should be put in place in our conversion courts, and there ought to be increased responsiveness to the “needs of the hour,” particularly reaching out to couples who may otherwise intermarry.
Only in Israel can conversion bring down a government. But only in Israel can these issues be resolved for now, for the future, for ourselves and for our children. n
Rabbi Seth Farber is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center (www.itim.org.il) and rabbi of Kehilat Netivot in Raanana, Israel.