Attacks on conversion bill are misleading

by Vic Rosenthal

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) — the largest Jewish denomination the US — sprung into action recently to protect us from a “dangerous threat”:

Sunday, July 12th, abruptly and with no warning, a committee vote was held on the bill sponsored by Member of the Knesset David Rotem that poses a dangerous threat to the rights of Conservative, Reform, and all non-Orthodox Jews, who comprise the overwhelming majority of world Jewry…

For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice (converts) the same as Jews-by-birth. This treatment is rooted in the Talmudic teaching that “as soon as a convert emerges from the mikvah (ritual bath) she or he is Jewish for all purposes.” (Yevamot 47b).

Since its founding 62 years ago, the State of Israel, through the Law of Return, has welcomed Jews from around the world as citizens in the world’s only Jewish state.

This legislation would delegitimize all non-Orthodox conversions. It would also preclude conferring citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews who did not qualify for such status on a prior visit (ie. converts).
[my italics]

The URJ is calling for its members to write to the Prime Minister and to apply every kind of pressure available to US Jews to prevent the passage of this bill. Rabbis will be speaking to their congregations from the pulpit, mass emails have been sent to Reform Jews, etc. Recently, the president of the largest congregation in our city said to me that “I’ve always supported Israel [he has], but I’m going to fight on this.”

A change to the criteria used by the State of Israel to determine ‘who is a Jew’ for the purposes of the Law of Return would indeed be big news. The Orthodox parties have tried in the past to change the law to disallow non-Orthodox converts from receiving citizenship, but have always been beaten back.

But in fact the bill doesn’t do anything like that.

Its main purpose is to decentralize the conversion process in Israel, in order to solve the problem of 320,000 Russian immigrants who would like to convert to Judaism but have been unable to, because of bureaucratic problems and ultra-Orthodox obstructionism. It makes it possible for local rabbis to perform conversions, and makes it harder for ultra-Orthodox ones to annul them.

This is a huge issue, and the bill tries to fix it without changing the traditional religious-secular status quo.

The Hebrew text of the bill is here. If you don’t read Hebrew, you will have to take my word for it that it doesn’t mention the law of return, nor does it discuss conversions that take place outside of Israel.

The big problem for the Reform movement is that the bill specifies that the Orthodox Rabbinate has overall authority over conversions in Israel. In fact, it has always been the case that conversion in Israel has been an Orthodox monopoly. This will not change. But this bill might be an obstacle to a legal challenge, mounted by the arm of the Reform movement in Israel via the Supreme court, to legitimize non-Orthodox conversions that take place in Israel.

By the way, the Reform movement in Israel has not generated much interest among secular Israelis, for most of whom “the synagogue that they don’t go to is Orthodox.”

David Rotem, who introduced the bill, is a member of the Israel Beiteinu [Israel, our home] party, which mostly represents Russian immigrants — and is strongly opposed to ultra-Orthodox control of family law. The bill is intended to reduce ultra-Orthodox influence on conversions. Israel Beiteinu also favors the institution of civil marriage, something which could be the subject of a forthcoming bill.

Lately there has been a great deal of tension between his party and PM Netanyahu’s Likud on various matters. This issue is seen on the Left as a way to split the coalition.

And this is another reason the Reform movement in the US is so energized. The leadership of the movement, which strongly supported the Obama administration, has always been left of center in Israeli politics. They are not comfortable with PM Netanyahu — whom they suspect of not being sufficiently committed to the ‘peace process’ — and violently dislike the head of Israel Beiteinu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. They would be much happier with Lieberman’s party replaced in the coalition by the left-leaning Kadima — and so would the administration.

This issue is perfect. For years there has been a simmering feud between the Reform movement in the US and Israeli Orthodoxy. Part of it is due to the arbitrary and sometimes corrupt stranglehold on matters of marriage and divorce held by the Rabbinate (ask me about how my daughter’s wedding was delayed for almost a year until her Jewishness could be documented). And it’s not helped by frequent comments from Orthodox Jews that, for example, a Reform rabbi is not a rabbi but is — I am not making this up — “a treif-fressing am ha-aretz” (an ignoramus who stuffs himself with non-kosher food).

So the URJ’s campaign has hit a nerve. Here are some examples of comments on their site:

I say: either accept those Americans who claim their Jewish heritage or those Jews will not support Israel. We are either important to Israel or the minority Orthodox outweigh us. Israel, DECIDE!

Who needs to worry about religious extremists in the Arab world, when we have our extremists in our own midst. Great civilizations have been destroyed from within, rarely from without. Get the message before it is too late.

I will like to see how the Orthodox Movement survives without the rest of the Jewish world. Let’s not just talk money wise, without the support of  “the rest of us” Israel will be alone and surrounded by enemies. I will not support “this Israel” in anyway.

A long time supporter of Israel, I must, with great sadness, announce that I am asking my fellow American Jews to shut down support of AIPAC until this disput [sic] is resolved and the rights of ALL Jewish people are protected fully under the “Law of Return”.

There is more to this from a psychological point of view. There’s a tension that exists in liberal American Jews between their overall ‘progressive’ ideology and their fear that much the Left supports those who want Israel to disappear. This gives them an opportunity to be ‘progressive’ by venting their anger against the “extremists” in Israel without getting in bed with Hamas.

There’s no doubt that the Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox interests have created (and continue to create) a great amount of trouble for secular Israelis. In my opinion, matters of family law should be governed by the state, not by religious authorities.

But I think that the URJ and others have seized on this bill and presented it in a deliberately misleading way. They want to advance the interests of their Israeli branches — and also their political agendas — and have found a way to stir up a storm of opposition among Diaspora Jews. But from an Israeli point of view, the bill would do a great deal of good in relieving an intolerable situation. And from an Israeli point of view, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are irrelevant, just another craziness of some American immigrants.

If you want to read more about the conversion bill, here is a link to a good, detailed article in a somewhat right-wing blog, and one in the left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz. Both of these are relatively fair accounts from their respective points of view.

Update [1923 PDT]: I made a few minor changes for clarity.

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