It’s hard not to be cynical about the latest conversion controversy in Jerusalem that threatens to further divide an already fragmented Jewish People for no reason but one: internal Israeli politics.
Indeed, just about every seemingly illogical legislation or decision in the Jewish state comes down to a matter of gaining, or in this case holding onto, political power.
That’s why the Netanyahu government risks further alienating an American Jewish community whose support it needs more than ever, and only days after a fence-mending White House meeting between the Prime Minister and President Obama.
If the Knesset continues to move ahead, as indicated this week, and pass legislation giving the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on conversions in Israel, the great majority of American Jews — as well as their establishment charitable organizations, most notably the leadership and supporters of Jewish federations — will consider themselves second-class citizens officially in the eyes of the Jewish State. As a result, their support could well diminish.
Make no mistake, the non-Orthodox American Jewish leadership is angry, and feeling betrayed, after being assured they would be consulted and their concerns addressed before action was taken on this Knesset bill. Jerry Silverman, the professional head of the Jewish Federations of North America, wrote an unusually blunt and irate letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu this week, expressing “deep shock” and urging him to block the bill sponsored by David Rotem, a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party.
In addition, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky expressed deep disappointment in Rotem’s legislation. “We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” he said in a statement that noted “the proposed bill was supposed to have been discussed in detail with world Jewry.”
Sharanksy implied in the statement that diaspora support could be adversely affected should the bill pass.
Rotem visited the U.S. this spring, seeking to assure American Jewish leaders that his legislation would not affect their status, and that their fears the bill would be harmful to Jewish unity were ungrounded. And Netanyahu issued a statement at the time assuring Reform and Conservative religious leaders that any legislation “will have to ensure the unity of the entire Jewish people.”
But Netanyahu, who appointed a commission that included representatives of the various religious streams in America to resolve the dispute, appears motivated more by keeping his coalition together today than keeping world Jewry united down the road. He may not relish upsetting the majority of American Jewry, but he certainly doesn’t want to jeopardize his hold on office. That means placating Lieberman, an outspoken advocate for immigrants from the former Soviet Union and whose party is key to the governing coalition. (It finished third to Likud and Kadima in the last elections.)
Rotem, Lieberman’s point man in the Knesset on the conversion bill, insists his motive is to pave the way to conversion for more of the approximately 350,000 Russian immigrants living in Israel, speaking Hebrew, integrated into the society and serving in the army, but who are not themselves Jewish. Just about everyone recognizes the severity and immediacy of the problem.
There is a whole new generation of youngsters — about 90,000 under the age of 18 — born in Israel to immigrant parents, most of them from the former Soviet Union, who are not halachically Jewish.
“We must accept and welcome them as they are an integral part of the Jewish people,” says Benny Ish Shalom, president of Beit Morasha of Jerusalem, an academic and leadership institute that runs a conversion course for non-Jewish soldiers, most of them Russian or Ethiopian, in the Israeli army.
But while Rotem’s bill would give city rabbis in Israel the authority to conduct conversions, presumably widening the circle and making the ritual more available, the final authority would be the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The Knesset legislation would codify and further solidify the religious monopoly that upsets most diaspora Jews, about 85 percent of whom are not Orthodox.
Ish Shalom, who is Orthodox and part of the government-appointed commission attempting to resolve the dispute, cautions that “creating new legal conditions without a previous agreement among all the parties will significantly damage Jewish unity.”
He points to the “courageous” efforts of Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a Shas Knesset member and respected rabbinic authority, who has played a pivotal role in seeking a solution to the crisis. The rabbi recently published a scholarly book calling for a more welcoming attitude toward potential converts, especially zera Yisrael [children of Jewish grandparents], citing numerous cases of rabbinic responsa indicating flexibility in setting conversion policy. He has also written that the criteria for conversion for those who serve in the Israeli army should be more lenient than for other prospective converts. The willingness of the soldiers, most from Russian families, to risk their lives to defend the Jewish state proves their sincere intention to be part of the Jewish people, he believes.
As a result of such views, critics within the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox community, including Shas colleagues, are lashing out at Rabbi Amsalem and calling his writings “a mockery of halacha” and a “publicity stunt.”
Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization, ITIM, helps people navigate the Israeli religious bureaucracy, expresses great admiration for Rabbi Amsalem and supports his work. But he points out that the rabbi’s proposed solution is theoretical rather than “politically viable or implementable.”
None of the current 34 conversion judges employed by the state would adopt Rabbi Amsalem’s position, says Rabbi Farber.
He calls Rotem’s proposed bill “idiotic” because it risks dangerous levels of frustration and anger from diaspora Jews for practically nothing in return — perhaps another two or three dozen conversions a year from a handful of city rabbis.
What’s needed, asserts Rabbi Farber, is to close down the ineffectual system of conversion judges, at a current government expense of about $12 million a year, and start over.
“We need fundamental reform with the backing of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the various religious movements,” he said, noting that the Amsalem approach could be applied.
Nothing will happen, though, without the support of Israeli politicians.
For now, Rabbi Amsalem has shown that halachic solutions are possible. But without the will to implement them, it’s all for naught, according to Rabbi Farber.
As for an immediate way out of the current impasse, he said it simply requires the Chief Rabbinate to authorize city rabbis to perform conversions, as was done in the past. That should satisfy Rotem and Yisrael Beiteinu as well as calm diaspora Jews since it would widen the pool for conversion rabbis yet not require or effect Knesset legislation.
But that may be far too logical and peaceable a solution for the Israeli political system to handle.