NEW YORK – Many American Jewish leaders are relieved that the conversion bill
sponsored by MK David Rotem did not come up for a vote in the Knesset before its
summer recess, but they are still reeling from the turbulence it has caused, and
hope that the three months until the legislature reconvenes will be used to
revise or block it.
The bill, which would give the Chief Rabbinate
control over all conversions in Israel, would implicitly and explicitly
determine “who is a Jew,” with tremendous implications for American rabbinates
and for the Diaspora as a whole, US Jewish leaders said.
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“I hope that
they can use this period to work out the issues that have plagued them over the
past few weeks,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of
Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“I hope it is possible
to work it out, as everybody is sensitive and there’s understanding about what
the concerns are on all sides.”
Other American Jewish leaders were more
vocal about their dissatisfaction.
“Ultimately, [the bill]’s a blow – a
blow to the State of Israel, and to good relations between the State of Israel
and American Jews,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform
Judaism, told The Jerusalem Post.
“What comes across is religious
fundamentalism delegitimizing Diaspora religious movements, and people using
Torah for their own narrow purposes, without concern for the broader welfare of
the Jewish people,” Yoffie said.
“I have been saddened and disappointed
in the proposed legislation to give one branch of Judaism a monopoly on
conversions, and to reject every other stream,” said Conservative Rabbi Bradley
Shavit Artson, vice president of the American Jewish University in Los
The bill “conveys a sense of marginalization or invisibility for
the vast majority of North American Jews and their own paths of Jewish
fidelity,” he said.
In a prominently featured opinion piece in The New
York Times titled, “The Diaspora Need Not Apply,” Tablet Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alana Newhouse came out strongly against the Rotem
bill, in no uncertain terms.
Newhouse speculated that future historians
would wonder why, “as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe the Jewish
state off the map, did the custodians of the 2,000-year-old national dream of
the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition of Jewish peoplehood,
seemingly calculated to alienate supporters outside its own borders?” Yoffie
said that “Israel has so many other problems now which are obviously of such
greater significance that these matters pale in comparison. Petty coalition
politics should hardly rate a mention when you’re talking about
Most Jewish leaders were less concerned with the nuances of the
bill, and more with its implicit message of disenfranchisement.
truth of the matter is that there is very little patience now in the American
Jewish community for a fundamental religious establishment pushing something
through for its own narrow purposes,” Yoffie said. “You can explain this a
thousand different ways, but what it looks like is religious fundamentalists
using the government to get their way, and that just doesn’t sell. The specifics
here, interestingly, are not important.”
While the bill provided American
Jews with an opportunity to get a quick primer in Israeli parliamentary
politics, most felt the situation was “lose-lose.”
“In a sense, everybody
loses here,” Yoffie said. “Everybody loses because we’re engaged in this battle
among ourselves, the message that’s sent to the broader community is that
American Jewish leadership is at odds with the government of
Right around Tisha Be’av, Yoffie said, was an “ironic time” to
see a bill that caused so much causeless hatred.
If anything, Artson
said, the legislation highlighted the intensity of the differences
religious Right in Israel and the more inclusive, deliberate pluralism
American Jewry. And in doing so, the bill may cause American Jews to
their allegiance to the Jewish state.
“Israel remains a core part of
Jewish identity for most American Jews, but that role is more nuanced
complex than the reflexive cheerleading of the past,” Artson said.
family, we can encourage each other to be self-surpassing – more
democratic, more creative in pursuit of peace, security and justice.”
many American Jews, Yoffie said, the contention over the bill
differences between the Jewish state as imagined by American Jews, and
Jewish state as it exists.
“I’d like the religious monopoly [in Israel] to be overthrown for a free market
society,” Yoffie said. “That’s not going to happen in the shorter term. But what
we do need now, among Likud and Kadima leadership, is an informal understanding
that the State of Israel simply cannot continue to have these crises for which
there are heavy prices to be paid.
“Whatever fiddling we do at the edges,
there can’t be any significant changes in the status quo which cast a shadow
over Diaspora Jewry,” Yoffie said. “That, I would like to believe on some level,