WASHINGTON – A US senator has taken the rare step of drafting a letter expressing concern about Israel’s pending conversion legislation, underscoring the wide dismay the bill has triggered in the American Jewish community.
The letter from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), understood to be addressed to Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, outlines apprehensions over the bill’s language, according to sources familiar with the text. It is circulating for signatures from additional Jewish senators before being delivered to the embassy.
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Caley Gray, communications director for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), one of the senators signing the letter, explained that “Senator Lautenberg hopes the Knesset does not pass this legislation, which he views as divisive.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D- Michigan), who met with concerned American Jewish officials Tuesday, said, "I am troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to Judaism to do so."
Oren is also expected to receive an earful on the subject when he talks with several Jewish members of Congress Thursday at a meeting originally scheduled to follow up on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent visit.
“Israel should continue to be a welcoming place for Jews, as it has been through its history,” said Matt Dennis, communications director for Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), characterizing her thinking. “She is concerned that this bill would alienate Jews around the world and risk weakening the sense of unity within the Diaspora that is critical to Israel’s security.”
“This is an Israeli government policy decision, but there are implications for American Jews. The members are American Jews, and there’s interest in understanding what the implications would be for Diaspora relations,” explained one congressional staffer.
It’s very rare for members of Congress to criticize a law under consideration by the Knesset, particularly in the form of a senatorial letter. But American Jewish officials who have been in touch with members of Congress on the issue attributed the reaction to the depth of consternation.
“It is somewhat unusual and unprecedented, and I think the reason is because of the nature of this particular issue, touching on the very essence of being Jewish and not just in Israel, but beyond,” said Stuart Weinblatt, who heads the Israel advocacy office of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
The bill includes a provision to put conversions under the control of the Orthodox chief rabbinate, anathema in any case to non-Orthodox Jews but particularly raising concerns that those who have undergone Conservative and Reform conversions abroad would no longer be eligible for Israel citizenship under the Law of Return.
“What is being considered would have an impact on the entire Jewish community,” Weinblatt explained, “which is a why I think we’re seeing such an outpouring and resolve… to use whatever means are available to try to be sure that the members of Knesset realize the serious implications not just for all of Israel, but all of the Jewish people.” Representatives from the RA, along with officials from the Union for Reform Judaism and The Jewish Federations of North America, were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday speaking to members and their staff about the issue.
“The whole idea is to leverage the relationship of important American Jews with the prime minister in order for him to recognize the very negative impact that passage of this conversion bill would have between American Jews and the State of Israel,” said one source with knowledge of the strategy, adding that for members of Congress, it can be personal.
“There’s an overwhelming feeling among Jewish members of Congress and Jewish senators that the conversion bill is offensive to them and is exclusionary in that it disenfranchises and disrespects 85% of Jews in the US.”
Despite the widespread concern the conversion bill has elicited from
Jewish members of Congress, it is unclear how many senators will end up
signing on to Wyden’s letter, with some preferring to address the issue
in private conversations.
But leaders in the American Jewish community have not been shy about
their displeasure with the proposed measure.
“We’re sharing very loudly that world Jewry is really questioning some
of the language of this bill that is divisive and damaging,” Jewish
Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman said by phone from
Jerusalem, where he is meeting with members of the Knesset and
government to urge them not to pass the legislation in its current form.
“What we’ve been trying to do is really share specifically with the
Prime Minister’s Office how, frankly, disastrous this divide could be
and how really serious this is.”