Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky called it “betrayal.” The executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, referred to it as “destructive.” Reform Movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie said it was “astonishing, foolish, disruptive.”

Diaspora Jewry’s leadership has reacted with dismay to Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem’s decision to ram through the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – albeit for a preliminary reading – legislation that essentially hands a monopoly over conversions to the Orthodox establishment.

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And rightly so. Rotem’s legislation was originally designed to streamline the conversion process for tens of thousands of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union – a mainstay of Israel Beiteinu’s constituency – who received automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return as relatives or descendants of Jews, but who are not Jewish according to Halacha and therefore suffer from various forms of discrimination, such as not being allowed to marry.

But during the parliamentary give and take, haredi legislators’ wrangling morphed Rotem’s legislation into a precedent-making conferral of “responsibility over conversions” to a particularly uncompromising stream of Orthodoxy presently controlling the chief rabbinate.

Diaspora Jews fear this Orthodox rabbinic establishment, which does not hide its contempt for liberal forms of Jewish expression, will roll back previous advances, such as the recognition of conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis abroad. If ratified, indeed, the bill would dispel the blissful ambiguity that has governed the status of the chief rabbinate in the field of conversions at a particularly inopportune time.

IN RECENT years, discussion among Jewish leaders and thinkers both in Israel and in the Diaspora has gradually moved away from narrow definitions of Judaism based on religious and ethnic criteria toward a broader more inclusive concept known as “peoplehood.” First coined by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, peoplehood is “the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people.”

Revival of Kaplan’s “peoplehood,” evidenced most prominently in the Jewish Agency’s new programming policy shift, is an attempt to somehow bridge the terrifying rifts that split the disparate groups making up the Jewish people, especially between liberal Diaspora Jewry and their nationalist Israeli brethren.

“Occupation,” Arab inequality, hateful infighting between secular and religious and even the gap between rich and poor in Israel have disenchanted many liberal Diaspora Jews, who feel that to blindly support Israel they must, as Peter Beinart recently put it, “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door.” Many are instead checking their Zionism.

Now Rotem is offering another reason for Diaspora Jewry to feel estranged from the Jewish state.

Nor can Rotem’s bill be divorced from another unfortunate event that transpired Monday morning. Anat Hoffman, indefatigable head of Women of the Wall, was arrested yet again for praying in the Kotel’s women’s section while holding a Torah scroll. Hoffman was, in fact, violating a 2003 High Court order banning the use of Torah scrolls by women at the Kotel; liberal leaning Jews find it hard to accept that Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, curtails the religious freedoms of Jews.

Further exacerbating the already strained relations with the Diaspora is Rotem’s stubborn insistence on pushing ahead with the bill despite promises made by no fewer than four ministers – Bennie Begin, Yuli Edelstein, Isaac Herzog and Yaakov Neeman – to delay such legislation until Sharansky could try to reach an acceptable compromise. Diaspora Jewry’s leadership – much of which, including campaign directors, philanthropists and fund-raisers, is presently visiting in Israel – feels betrayed.

Nor is it clear what Israel Beiteinu and its constituents will gain. Although the bill will expand the pool of rabbis authorized to perform conversions, moderate-minded city rabbis who are willing to be more welcoming to potential converts, such as Efrat’s Shlomo Riskin or Shoham’s David Stav, will probably not be tapped by the Chief Rabbinate’s haredi-dominated governing council.

There is still time – and there is an imperative – to amend Rotem’s proposed legislation before it becomes law.

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