Despite assurances that there would be no backroom deal to allow passage of a conversion bill giving the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate veto power over all Israeli conversions, the leader of the Reform movement is worried.
“[Natan] Sharansky has spoken with the prime minister and has been assured this will not happen,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “But in the turmoil now in Israel, we are concerned that ultimately we could be the victims here. Therefore, we feel a need to be exceedingly vigilant.”
Sharansky, chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, told The Jewish Week on Tuesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told him repeatedly that “he very much wants to find an acceptable solution,” and that “he would not agree with any undermining of the legitimate interests of world Jewry.”
Rabbi Yoffie said he had heard rumors that two Orthodox Israeli coalition partners, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would lend their support to a bill that would give the army’s chief rabbi total control over all conversions that take place in the Israel Defense Forces — a move critics of the Chief Rabbinate favor because it weakens its authority — in return for the adoption of the controversial conversion bill.
The IDF bill has been approved overwhelmingly by the Knesset and sent to committee for possible further refinement. The Knesset is then expected to vote on the bill for the first of three readings sometime next month. Final passage is expected a week or two later.
Should the army’s chief rabbi get total authority over conversions, Rabbi Yoffie said it would signal the continuing erosion of the power of the Chief Rabbinate.
“We’re seeing a process in Israel that will culminate in the not too distant future in the collapse of the Orthodox religious structure — the collapse of the Chief Rabbinate,” he said. “Even a member of Shas … said that Shas has made itself hated by the Israeli public because of all its maneuvering and attempts to advance its own interests at the expense of converts in the army, grubbing for public funds and supporting bills that confirm the right of yeshiva students not to serve in the army.”
Rabbi Yoffie’s comments Tuesday came as the six-month deadline for resolving the conversion crisis nears an end. Sharansky, who was asked by Netanyahu to work with all sides to resolve the issue, said he has asked all parties for a six-month extension to June 30.
“It’s delicate,” Sharansky said. “As always, it is not easy to find formulas that everybody will feel comfortable with, especially during heated political debates. So we have asked all sides to wait with their appeals to the Supreme Court and with [proposed] legislation. The Reform and Conservative movements agreed and I am still looking a response from the political partners. … It is my hope that we will have additional time to work without pressure or one-sided steps.”
Prompting this latest debate about conversions is a bill proposed last summer by Knesset Member David Rotem that would for the first time give the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate oversight over the conversion process. Rotem said he included that provision to secure the support of right-wing political parties in the governing coalition. He insisted that the bill is not aimed at diaspora Jewry but rather at the estimated 350,000 non-Jewish Israelis from the Russian-speaking immigrant community who wish to convert to Judaism and marry in Israel.
The bill, however, hit a raw nerve when Rotem, hoping to garner support, agreed to give the Chief Rabbinate authority over all conversions. Non-Orthodox Jewish leaders worldwide denounced it, warning that it would be “disastrous for the unity of the Jewish people.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, saying he believed it would “tear apart the Jewish people” and he asked Sharansky to try to work out a compromise.
Among the various proposals that have been floated in the last six months are:
n Establishing separate Reform, Conservative and Orthodox conversion courts under the aegis of the Jewish Agency. Successful applicants would then be recognized as Jews by the state in the same way persons converted abroad are recognized.
n Conduct conversions in the West Bank, in such communities as Ariel and Maale Adumim. The state would recognize the converts as Jews when they returned to Israel proper, just as it recognizes conversions performed abroad.
n Create an independent conversion authority composed of rabbis who have been ordained by the Chief Rabbinate and who would be appointed by a committee representing all segments of Israeli society. Their appointment would be made only after a hearing to ensure they follow a more inclusive interpretation of Jewish law.
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, said his movement could not support the latter proposal because the rabbis selected “would not represent the entire Jewish world. … Just because they may be ‘more inclusive’ does not mean it is just. Can we afford not to have Reform and Conservative rabbis performing conversions? Are they not legitimate?”
He said his movement proposed the idea of three separate conversion courts and that the Reform movement had joined with them. Hess said he has not heard any response to the proposal from the others.
Regarding Sharansky’s request for a six-month extension of the deadline to resolve the conversion issue, Hess said his movement has no objection but “would like a temporary solution for the people” whose cases are pending before Israel’s High Court of Justice.
“We’re not asking that their problems be solved, only to ease their day-to-day challenges during the time of the moratorium with such things as health care and work permits,” he said.
Rabbi Yoffie said that although he supports the Conservative proposal, he doubts “it is likely to happen in the practical world.” And he threw cold water on the idea of conversions in the West Bank, saying it is “not serious.”
“We’re not going to resolve this by game playing and let’s pretend,” Rabbi Yoffie insisted. “We need conversions with integrity and so we must allow all of the major streams to do conversions. We’re not asking the Orthodox to recognize them; only the state.”
Sharansky declined to discuss the different proposals, saying only: “All the ideas are good, but not for all sides. We need one idea that will be acceptable to all the sides. The first version of [the conversion bill] was good, but then it was amended [to include the provision about the Chief Rabbinate]. We have find a way to dis-amend it, if that is a word.”
Asked if the talks until now have been constructive, Sharansky said each side is “interested in defending the things it believes important to them. Practically all of the sides believe their concern is part of the national interest. … Everyone is interested in continuing as one Jewish family, and in view of all the challenges we face I think all sides in the end do want to find a way to live together without undermining each other’s basic interests.”
Benjamin Ish-Shalom, chairman of the Institute for Jewish Studies-The Joint Conversion Institute that combines Orthodox, Conservative and Reform perspectives in conversion classes, said he believes an agreement will be reached. He said he would prefer to see changes in the proposed conversion bill regarding the Chief Rabbinate’s supremacy over conversions.
“We are having conversations with Rotem and others and we are still in the midst of these efforts,” he said. “I cannot tell you what the outcome will be because people change their minds.”