I have written and rewritten this column half a dozen times in the last few days,
amending and reworking it each time I spoke to another of the
I don’t remotely claim to have identified a formula that
can fix the crisis that again risks fracturing the global Jewish nation – the
latest eruption of intra-Jewish warfare surrounding Israel Beiteinu Knesset
member David Rotem’s conversion bill.
There is, unsurprisingly, no
readiness on the part of the ultra-Orthodox leadership for any dialogue with
Reform Jewish leaders on the issue. By contrast, among some of the other
factions involved – including Orthodox rabbis, politicians and leaders, and
non-Orthodox rabbis, politicians and leaders – there is at least a purported
will, and quite possibly a genuine desire, to resolve the matter via
constructive interaction. However, there is also an acute sensitivity and
Rotem credibly claims to be motivated primarily by
the interests of 350,000-400,000 Israelis, mainly from the former Soviet Union,
who were Jewish enough to gain citizenship under the Law of Return, but are not
They cannot therefore get married, divorced or
buried here under the monopolistic aegis of the Chief Rabbinate. And, he says,
they largely want to.
They want to be part of the Israeli Jewish
mainstream; they have thrown in their lot with Zion; they serve in the army and,
heaven forbid, if they die in that service, they want to be buried with the rest
of the nation for which they gave their lives; they want their children to be
recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish and therefore not to encounter
difficulties when they try to get married.
Their problem was supposed to
have been solved within the framework of the State Conversion Authority, the
outgrowth of Yaakov Neeman’s Solomonic efforts to defuse the incendiary
conversion issue when it last erupted more than a decade ago.
immense credit, Neeman secured the agreement of the leaders of the non-Orthodox
streams of Judaism to a process in which they would have input in the education
of would-be converts, but not the final say on their
Simultaneously, he was able to maintain Orthodox support
because the final conversion authorization would remain under the purview of the
Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
The Conversion Authority was established, with
the highly regarded Rabbi Haim Druckman at its head. The shattering legislation
of the day was put aside; the crisis with the Diaspora was averted.
practice, however, the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate indeed oversaw but never
formally accepted the arrangement. And relations between the various streams in
the tripartite educational process were fraught, with Orthodox sources asserting
that Reform and Conservative representatives sought exaggerated influence, and
Reform and Conservative sources protesting that they were marginalized and that
it was made plain to would-be converts that they should not acknowledge
non-Orthodox connections if they wanted to clear the conversion
In practice, too, the hopedfor streamlined and widened process of
conversion proved elusive – in part because the rabbinate constricted it, and in
part because the very nature of an Orthodox conversion entails at least a
purported commitment to a highly particular lifestyle to which not all potential
converts would be amenable.
And so, more than a decade on, only a few
thousand of those ostensible hundreds of thousands of non-halachically- Jewish,
would-be-converted Israelis are making it through the apparent bottleneck each
year, and the rest remain in limbo.
PLAINLY, FOR all its advantages, the
Conversion Authority Neeman brought about is a less than perfect creation, in a
less than perfect Israeli Jewish world. The haredi Beit Din Hagadol has actually
moved to retroactively annul its conversions – although the Chief Rabbinate has
intervened to rectify that. More practically, some particularly harsh and
stringent city rabbis do not recognize its conversions either.
whose bill aims to outflank those rabbis by empowering any current or former
city rabbi to oversee conversion, and to minimize the likelihood of any
retroactive annulment – has been working on the legislation while engaging in
dialogue with the key players in all streams of Judaism, at home and
But however well-intentioned the effort, it has broken down. As
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky remarked on Wednesday, the original bill
was fine. But amendments imposed by ultra-Orthodox legislators – to anchor in
law the current de facto Orthodox responsibility for conversions in Israel –
derailed it. And misrepresentation of its content by some in the non-Orthodox
leadership deepened the rift.
Some leaders of non-Orthodox Judaism are
now so profoundly mistrustful of Rotem and his motives as to entertain the
notion that his initiative is part of his party leader Avigdor Lieberman’s prime
ministerial ascent, for which haredi support will be essential. They are
concerned that the status not only of their converts, but of their very
movements, is being threatened.
Passions have escalated. So have the
rhetoric and the threats. As Binyamin Netanyahu, who presided over the late-’90s
installment of the crisis in his first term as prime minister, told his
ministers on Sunday, Rotem’s bill, in its current form, “could tear apart the
In the background is a pending High Court ruling on the
legitimacy for citizenship purposes under the Law of Return of non-Orthodox
conversions performed in Israel – a ruling the non-Orthodox establishment may
reasonably believe will go its way, and which Rotem’s legislation is plainly
intended to preempt. Against that, however, is the certainty that any such court
ruling would prompt immediate pressure on Netanyahu for legislation to
circumvent it – legislation that, given the current constellation of the Knesset
and in contrast to the current version of Rotem’s bill, could well emphatically
outlaw non- Orthodox conversions here.
In the Knesset canteen on
Wednesday, our religious affairs reporter Jonah Mandel and I moved between two
tables populated by leaders on both sides of the conversion divide. Various
Knesset members, rabbis, aides and spokespeople dropped in intermittently on
both groups – but the two sides, who have conversed in the past, did not merge
their tables and talk to each other this time.
In our separate
conversations with them, we heard anger and bitterness and
We heard accusations that Rotem had dismayed and
disappointed the non-Orthodox leadership by presenting his legislation to the
Knesset Law Committee – where it narrowly won approval last week – before their
dialogue had been completed. It was stated that the amended versions of his
proposal were plainly skewed in favor of the Orthodox establishment and that
Rotem had lost credibility with the non- Orthodox streams as a consequence, even
though he was now apparently ready to backpedal somewhat.
counter accusations that the non-Orthodox leadership had mounted a mass campaign
that deliberately misrepresented the legislation, and that it ought to be
eagerly embracing a proposal that would have no impact on the status in Israel
of non- Orthodox conversions performed abroad and would not explicitly give the
Orthodox Rabbinate a monopoly over non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel
The arguments are complex and nuanced, and are being distorted by
a mutual sense of slight and grievance. Across this Jewish divide, each side
insists that what it wants is more dialogue (but that the other side doesn’t).
That what it seeks is a Solomonic solution.
And that what it needs is
THE KNESSET went into summer recess on Wednesday for three
months, with Rotem’s legislation not coming before it, as had earlier been
So the two sides do now have time.
use it to find a compromise that maintains the current, evidently necessary,
conversion ambiguity – under which the ultra-Orthodox legislators would withdraw
their demand for Knesset- backed “responsibility” for conversions, while the
non- Orthodox would drop their High Court petitions.
There can be no
solution that resolves a reality – a healthy reality – in which Judaism has
developed down the generations in multiple directions with different emphases.
And no Knesset legislation or High Court ruling can resolve the fact that the
global Jewish nation includes differing streams that exercise conflicting
criteria for admission to the faith.
The genteel, lawyerly, Orthodox
Neeman came extremely close, in the late 1990s, to finessing the particular
dilemma that has sent pulses racing again now – finding a framework that could
provide for a pathway into Judaism, tolerated by the various streams of the
faith, for those hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the former Soviet Union
who would have been Jewish enough to be murdered by the Nazis but aren’t Jewish
enough to marry, divorce or die within the formal embrace of the Jewish
But the task was, and is, almost impossibly
Complicated because, in contrast to the Diaspora, and to the
abiding despair of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and all those – this
writer included – who seek a more pluralistic Israel, those life cycle events in
Israel enjoy monopolistic Orthodox oversight.
And this will remain the
case for the foreseeable future, in the absence of a mass influx of
Jews or drastically enhanced public pressure for pluralism.
because, to the abiding inconvenience of the increasingly narrow-minded
rabbinical establishment, Israel happens to be the homeland of all the
is the sovereign state, too, of the Conservatives, the
Reform and the secular – and must not allow itself to become an
enclave of religious fundamentalism.
WHAT WE are facing is an explosive
global crisis over Jewish identity – a huge, snow-balling disaster that
ripping Israeli-Diaspora relations.
But it has erupted over a very
particular dilemma that, in our particular context, simply may not be
through legislation or court decision.
Personally, I am not at all sure
there is a mass demand among the fabled 350,000- 400,000 for the kind of
streamlined, but still halachic conversion process that Rotem says
incendiary effort at legislation.
Which, given the bitterness it is
causing, brings renewed meaning to the Jewish injunction against
And which makes me wonder, in turn (to adapt Winston Churchill’s
assessment of democracy as a form of government), whether Yaakov
imperfect creation is the worst form of conversion framework for
Israel...except all those other forms that have been considered from
time to time.