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Israel Conversion Bill A Hard Sell To U.S. Jews

Israel Conversion Bill A Hard Sell To U.S. Jews

Legislation would end the Orthodox hegemony over conversions in Israel, but liberal leaders worry about Law of Return provision.

The Israeli lawmaker who authored the proposed controversial conversion bill flew to New York this week to convince Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders to support it, promising to withdraw the bill if they do not.

“I want them to say we read the bill, we don’t love it but we accept it,” the Israeli Knesset member, David Rotem, told The Jewish Week.

“I’m willing to drop the bill, but if I do what will be the gain for the Reform and Conservative movements?” he asked. “If I withdraw it, the leaders of diaspora Jewry will then have to bear the responsibility for the 300,000 to 500,000 [immigrants primarily from the former Soviet Union] who are not able to get a conversion.”

However, it’s not clear whether Rotem will be able to win over the non-Orthodox community. Particularly because the bill contains a provision that would bar converts to Judaism from gaining automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return if they had entered the country before their conversion.

Liberal Jewish leaders fear this provision would be a pretext by which non-Orthodox converts would be singled out and discriminated against.

In an interview before her meeting with Rotem, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said she feared his proposed law in its current form would have a negative impact on the Jewish world.

“What is at stake is nothing less than the unity of the Jewish people worldwide,” she insisted, adding that the “vitality of the Jewish religion” is also on the line.

“We are 100 percent on the same page,” Rabbi Schonfeld said of the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements, as well as the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee. “This bill in its current form is harmful and unacceptable.”

Asked about her comments, Rotem repeated that without their support, he would withdraw the bill.

“I am not willing to take upon myself the responsibility of breaking the relationship between the State of Israel and Jews in the world,” he said. “I don’t want to limit the assistance of Jews in the diaspora to the State of Israel.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, said that at this week’s meetings with Rotem his leaders would be “presenting the concerns we have.”

“It’s a troubling and problematic bill and we’ll address our concerns and hope they will be addressed.”

After the first of her meetings with Rotem Tuesday, Rabbi Schonfeld said she found their conversations “immensely illuminating and helpful.”

“Clear to everyone present is his profound commitment to solve the religious status problems faced by Russian immigrants,” she said. “His passion about this is very moving.”

Rabbi Schonfeld added that Rotem’s party, Israel Beiteinu, and “non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry have much common cause in our shared desires to see more varied expressions of Jewish life and practice supported by official religious bodies in Israel.”

Rotem in The Jewish Week interview insisted that without his bill, hundreds of thousands of immigrants among the 1 million who came to Israel after the collapse of the former Soviet Union would remain in limbo because they are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.

“We are sitting on a ticking time bomb,” Rotem said of these immigrants. “Their children serve in the Israeli army, they are part of Israeli society and yet they are not accepted as Jews. If one is killed in the army, they have a problem — where to bury him. What kind of society are we going to build where a person is good for fighting, for studying and work, but not to become a Jew?”

Rotem, 62, a father of five and the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said he included four key elements in his proposed conversion bill:

n The chief rabbis in cities throughout Israel would be able to establish conversion programs and rabbinical courts for the purpose of conversion. Currently, there are only one or two such rabbinical courts.

n The State of Israel would be one conversion zone, thus enabling someone living in one city to apply for conversion in another city whose conversion program and court has a better reputation.

n No rabbinical court or other court would be able to revoke a conversion made by a city’s rabbinical court. Only the converting court may revoke it if it determines that fraud was somehow involved.

n The rabbis in the rabbinical court would be able to perform the marriages of the converts.

“The rabbis of each city will work to schedule conversion classes so that they accommodate the students,” Rotem said. “The students should learn a love of Judaism.”

Asked if there would be one uniform curriculum for all conversion programs to follow, Rotem replied: “Every rabbi knows what halacha [Jewish law] wants him to teach; I’m not interfering in it.”

He said he included the provision that rabbis who convert must also perform marriages because of the large number of Israeli soldiers who are converted by the army rabbi and later have difficulty finding a rabbi who will officiate at their weddings.

The issue of conversion has been a source of controversy in Israel for years amid charges that fervently Orthodox rabbis are trying to dictate who may perform them, as well as other life-cycle events such as marriage and divorce. Reform and Conservative Jews have challenged their actions in the courts.

Two years ago, the Chief Rabbinate’s High Court overturned the conversion of a woman after 15 years because it said she had not lived a Jewish lifestyle, as required by Jewish law. It said her marriage was therefore invalid and that her children were also not Jewish. In addition, the court ruled all the conversions performed in the last several years by Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the head of the Conversion Administration, were null and void.

Rotem said his bill would end Orthodox hegemony over conversions in Israel.

But he acknowledged that the section of the bill preventing those who convert in Israel from Law of Return eligibility is controversial. He said he inserted it to prevent Palestinians and foreign workers in Israel from converting and then receiving citizenship under the Law of Return, which automatically grants citizenship to all Jews.

“I don’t want conversions to be a way of achieving citizenship,” bypassing the regular several years-long citizenship process, he said.

But Rabbi Yoffie said the Law of Return provision would for the first time “make a distinction” between born Jews and those who converted.

“That is contrary to the most basic values of Judaism,” he insisted. “Judaism does not make any distinction” between the two.

Rotem insisted that the provision is not aimed at the non-Jew who visited Israel once on vacation as a tourist.

“I’m talking about people who are misusing [the Law of Return],” he said.

But Rabbi Yoffie said such assurances are not satisfactory.

“That may be the case with Orthodox converts, but from past history we know that Reform and Conservative Jews will not be greeted and embraced,” he said.

Rotem said that he agreed with Rabbi Yoffie’s observation.

“It’s true, but so what?” he asked.

Rabbi Yoffie insisted that the true purpose of the new legislation is “to prevent us from either having the Law of Return or from using current law to gain full recognition for conversions in Israel. The American Jewish leadership feels that this would be a significant blow to our standing in Israel and our ability to even maintain our current position under existing law.

“Is this bill good for the state, does it advance the cause of religious freedom and advance the cause of the Reform and Conservative movements? The answer is no.”

Steven Bayme, director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee, said that although the bill is “well-intentioned,” it would do more harm than good.

“At a time when American Jewish leadership is deeply concerned about inspiring American Jews to identify with Israel as a Jewish state and a state of the entire Jewish people, this sends a wrong message. … Initiatives such as this threaten to drive a wedge between American Jewry and Israel, and that is bad for the Jewish people.”

But Rotem, who said he next plans to resubmit legislation previously defeated to permit civil marriage and to then tackle changes in the electoral system, insisted his proposed conversion bill is best for all. He predicted it would receive at least 75 votes — well above the 61 needed to pass.

“I’m very proud I’m doing this job because it is so important for the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” he said.

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