The dust is starting to settle over the latest conversion skirmish.
Knesset has gone into its summer hibernation, and the conversion debate that
rocked the Jewish world over the past two weeks has gone quiet as
Looking back, perhaps it is now time to thank MK David Rotem, the
initiator of the bill that sparked the controversy.
First, we should
thank him for the bill itself, which in its original version went a long way
toward bringing comfort and legal remedy to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish
Israelis who may wish to become part of the Jewish people.
fervently hope that he will continue to advance the bill’s original intent,
without the problematic amendments that transformed it into an attempt to settle
the “Who is a Jew” controversy.
But there is yet another reason to thank
MK Rotem. His surprise introduction of the bill in the Knesset Law Committee on
July 12 launched a remarkable and instructive battle of wills between Israeli
lawmakers and some American Jewish leaders, even if it ended as it always has:
in a stalemate.
Time and again the Jewish people has revisited the
conversion confrontation in recent decades, and each time the argument is the
same. It is a debate between those who want to codify in legislation that Israel
will recognize one universal standard of conversion and those who wish to see
Israel embrace a broader spectrum of religious practice.
Each side in
this face-off has its own compelling and unique weapons: one side the strength
of state institutions and legislation; the other direct access to Israeli
leaders, public opinion of millions of Jews worldwide and the ability to
petition the High Court of Justice for redress of grievances.
each side entered the battle at the peak of its power. Rotem brought the bill to
the Knesset at an almost ideal political moment and had every reason to believe
he would succeed in pushing it through. Two of the major coalition partners,
Israel Beiteinu and Shas, agreed to join forces in moving the bill forward.
Together, they made up a huge bloc in a government that already enjoyed a strong
majority in the Knesset. Rotem’s bill – at least in its original form – is even
part of the coalition agreement.
So by creating “facts on the ground,”
Rotem hoped to use his political advantage to force the bill into law, even over
the angry objections of many Diaspora leaders. The bill’s easy passage through
the Knesset Law Committee seemed to prove the efficacy of the moment.
the other side, too, enjoyed a favorable political window. As Gabriella Shalev,
outgoing ambassador to the UN, warned last week, the Jewish state is today “the
most isolated, lonely country in the world,” and this constitutes its greatest
strategic challenge. Israel is caught in a diplomatic and media tsunami of
delegitimization and vilification that reaches every campus and every rights
group, every church and every television set around the world. In this battle,
world Jewry is our closest friend, our first and best line of
While it fights against our common detractors, no responsible
Israeli leader can afford to delegitimize its Jewishness.
AS EACH side of
the conversion debate brought its own views to the table, it discovered how
little it knows about the other. Indeed, for the large numbers of Diaspora
leaders and dozens of MKs who participated in last week’s marathon meetings and
discussions, it was the first time they had faced each other and held serious
discussions on this issue.
So it is fortunate for all that this round of
the confrontation yielded no clear victor.
The political impasse offers a
unique opportunity for a dialogue in which each side can move past its earlier
erroneous assumptions about the other and begin to grapple sincerely with the
deep logic of the interlocuter’s view.
One side of the debate is asking a
fair question: Why can’t Israel be more like America? Why are state
and politicians given power over spiritual matters? But Israel is not
In its relationship with the Jewish world, Israel sees itself as the
all Jews, a principle expressed most prominently in the Law of Return, a
law from 1950 that grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wants
This simple fact – that any Jew can receive Israeli citizenship and
that millions have done so – means that Israeli officials must have some
determining who is eligible for citizenship.
Therefore it is the civil
magistrates who must deal with a question that might be viewed as
under other conditions – who is Jewish and who is not.
It is this
unavoidable result of statehood – and not simply, as is commonly
pressure or political blackmail – that leads some Israeli leaders to
try to establish a universal benchmark for conversion.
Then there is the
other side, which asks: Why do these Diaspora Jews interfere in our
legislation? We don’t interfere in their conversions.
By the same
principle articulated before – the Jewish state is the state of all Jews
Jewish community should be able to feel that Israel is its home too.
That is why
Israel cannot pass legislation that is viewed by these communities as
undermining this connection.
So we are caught in a complex
The same ideal requires, on the one hand, a single universal
standard for who is a Jew, and on the other hand, that Israel remain
committed to the global Jewish community in all its diversity.
tension is unavoidable. It is inherent in Jewish statehood and in the
Jews uniquely constitute both a nation and a religion. And if either
both sides lose – because we lose the Israel we all want, the unique
that is a homeland for all Jews, wherever and however they may live.
the last two weeks, both sides of this debate discovered that they
resolve their differences by force. The fact that they have now agreed
moratorium on unilateral actions – whether legislation in the Knesset or
petitions to the High Court – shows that they have gained a new
each other. Perhaps the intense encounter during the latest political
has given each one a better appreciation of the sincerity on the other
The threats that face the Jewish people are far too great to be
overcome by a divided polity. In the larger battle to guarantee our
future, we must all understand that we have no greater ally than each
We must start listening to each other, and the sooner the
better.The writer is chairman of the Jewish