Sharansky: Schism with US Jews would hurt Israel

Jewish Agency chairman warns conversion bill would greatly damage Israel's international standing.

July 20, 2010 06:09
3 minute read.
Jewish agency conference

311_jewish agency. (photo credit: Brian Hendler)

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky warned Monday, on the eve of Tisha Be’av, that passing a controversial conversion bill would greatly damage Israel’s standing in the international arena.

Speaking before the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, which is traditionally attributed to infighting among Jews, Sharansky said the bill would alienate the politically powerful Jewish communities abroad that by and large oppose the bill at a time they are needed most to fend off Israel’s critics and enemies.

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“When all the Reform and Conservative congregations have rallied to support us, we can’t allow ourselves to tell them we don’t accept them as Jews,” he said. “There are legitimate concerns on both sides, but we need to get back to the negotiating table and find a compromise based on Rotem’s original bill.”

Sharansky said the framework of the bill introduced by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) was good, but that a number of amendments – like that requiring converts to follow the vaguely defined “halachic law” – had fundamentally altered its original purpose and rid it of its merits. He added that one of the biggest problems was the authority over conversions it would give to haredi rabbis, while marginalizing all other streams of Judaism.

A number of organizations representing the predominantly non-Orthodox Jewish community in America have vowed to thwart the legislation for this reason.

Looking on the bright side, Sharansky said the debate stirred by the bill had been an awakening for many Israelis.

“If there’s one good thing that came out of this crisis it’s that people in Israel are more aware of the debate surrounding the issue of conversions, and realize that Reform and Conservative Judaism isn’t something that is unrelated to us,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “The debate isn’t about orthodoxy or reformism, but about the undermining of the legitimacy of the State of Israel if it were to cast away its Jewish brethren.”

A senior aide in Israel Beiteinu yesterday defended the Rotem bill and suggested that if Diaspora Jews were to give it a close reading they would drop their opposition.

“The part about the Law of Return was taken out of the recent reading, and Rotem feels there is nothing new in it that should upset Diaspora Jews,” the official, who asked not to be named, told the Post. “At the moment there are almost impossible, Herculean hurdles for conversion, and the law would remove the authority to carry out conversions from a handful of people and give it to city rabbis. People could then choose their rabbis.”

The vast majority of city rabbis, however, are haredi, while the rest are modern Orthodox or from the national religious stream. In any case, they are all appointed by the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

When asked how his party would react if the bill became a law and the chief rabbinate were to defrock a city rabbi or remove his authority to carry out conversations for not adhering to its policies, the official said Israel Beiteinu would “reconsider what we’d do then.” However, he did not believe this scenario would play out and added that Rotem’s bill was the best compromise available to help streamline the conversion process.

"The point is that this law has to pass a coalition government and for that you have to do a bit of horse trading,” he said.

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