During the course of the past several months, a story has been unfolding in my beloved State of Israel that has me very concerned. It involves the conversion bill currently making its way through the Knesset—proposed legislation that has the potential to cause serious and irreparable damage to the unity of the Jewish people.
I believe deeply in a Jewish community that is a tapestry of people and identities representing the rich diversity of what it means to be Jewish, and I am committed to fostering welcoming, inclusive communities for all Jews who seek to lead actively Jewish lives.
This bill runs counter to these principles, and I am writing you today to offer my thoughts on why it is an issue in which all Jews, regardless of where they choose to make their homes and raise their families, have a stake.
Currently there are hundreds of thousands of people living in Israel who are not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law). Many of them are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and even though most of them are Israeli citizens who identify as Jews and serve in the Israel Defense Forces, they have no rights of personal status in Israel because they are not recognized as Jews by the Orthodox rabbinate. Accordingly, they cannot have a legally binding marriage, receive a legally sanctioned divorce or even be buried in a Jewish cemetery without first converting to Judaism in a manner controlled by that rabbinate.
In 2008, the Rabbinical Court of Appeals made the situation even worse when it issued a ruling calling into question the conversions of approximately 40,000 people granted under the authority of a previously unimpeachable rabbinical court. This decision not only deeply and adversely affected the lives of those involved; it had a profoundly “chilling effect” on the entire conversion process by raising the real possibility that every conversion conducted in Israel could be retroactively annulled. Ever since that ruling, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has refused to perform conversions for fear that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis who dominate the rabbinical courts would continue to overrule them.
Early this spring, David Rotem, a member of Knesset, attempted to end this stalemate by proposing legislation that he hoped would: 1) resolve the issues relating to the potential retroactive annulment of conversions; and 2) ease the conversion process in the future. As currently written, however, this legislation actually extends the control of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate of Israel over matters of conversion.
The bill was approved last week by a Knesset committee. Although a storm of protest by Diaspora Jewry and many within Israel has led to an agreement to delay consideration of this bill for six months, I believe it is vital that we understand the potential ramifications of this still-pending legislation.
As currently written, the proposed legislation will make the Chief Rabbinate the sole arbiter of the conversion process and, in turn, this grants absolute control to the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel to determine who is a Jew.
While it is certainly reasonable to make Orthodox conversions easier for those who desire them, the proposed law would have a far greater, and more dangerous, impact on the unity of the Jewish people because it will mean that only those who convert to Judaism according to the halachic standards set by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate will be able to acquire Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. This could potentially prevent an immigrant or resident who had converted via non-Orthodox means from seeking citizenship and sanctuary in our Jewish Homeland.
Accordingly, and contrary to the original intent of the bill’s author, this legislation would actually make it more difficult for people in Israel who wish not to adhere to the requirements of Orthodoxy to convert to Judaism.
Should the conversion law go into effect, I fear that it would do great damage to our worldwide Jewish community and threaten to open a deep rift between world Jewry and Israel. It would send a clear and alarming message that there is only one acceptable brand of Judaism. Most of North American Jews—85 percent—belong to, or identify with, the Conservative and Reform movements, which would be directly—and negatively—affected by this proposal.
At a time when Jews around the world are working diligently to defend Israel against efforts to delegitimize it, a bill that would be understood or perceived to delegitimize the religious streams that represent the majority of Diaspora Jews, as well as those who want to be included as members of our people, cannot be allowed to become law in the Jewish State.
Over the last 10 days, a coalition of groups led by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the Conservative and Reform movements has been voicing alarm as well. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out forcefully against the bill, saying it would damage the unity of the Jewish people and urged its defeat. I applaud Prime Minister Netanyahu’s strong leadership on this issue, as well as the six-month moratorium, during which a task force headed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky will seek ways to draft and pass legislation to the mutual satisfaction of all sides involved.
This is ultimately what those advocating against the bill are seeking: a wider dialogue with all parties to reach a compromise. At the heart of their efforts remains the goal of ensuring Israel remains true to its goals and aspirations—to be a Jewish homeland for all of the Jewish people.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:
- Ha’Aretz: The Conversion Bill Demystified
- JTA: Opponents Alarmed as Israeli Conversion Bill Moves Ahead
- Jerusalem Post: Conversion Bill Dismays US Senators
- Jewish Week: Rotem’s Bill Promises But Doesn’t Deliver
- New York Times: The Diaspora Need Not Apply
- Jerusalem Post: A Call for State-Sanctioned Religious Tolerance
- Jerusalem Report: A Tragic Annulment