US Jews thankful conversion bill delayed

MK Rotem's bill halted for 3 months in Knesset.

July 22, 2010 00:11
4 minute read.
PM Binyamin Netanyahu walks through the Knesset

Netanyahu, Knesset 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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NEW YORK – Many American Jewish leaders are relieved that the conversion bill sponsored by MK David Rotem did not come up for a vote in the Knesset before its summer recess, but they are still reeling from the turbulence it has caused, and hope that the three months until the legislature reconvenes will be used to revise or block it.

The bill, which would give the Chief Rabbinate control over all conversions in Israel, would implicitly and explicitly determine “who is a Jew,” with tremendous implications for American rabbinates and for the Diaspora as a whole, US Jewish leaders said.

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“I hope that they can use this period to work out the issues that have plagued them over the past few weeks,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“I hope it is possible to work it out, as everybody is sensitive and there’s understanding about what the concerns are on all sides.”

Other American Jewish leaders were more vocal about their dissatisfaction.

“Ultimately, [the bill]’s a blow – a blow to the State of Israel, and to good relations between the State of Israel and American Jews,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told The Jerusalem Post.

“What comes across is religious fundamentalism delegitimizing Diaspora religious movements, and people using Torah for their own narrow purposes, without concern for the broader welfare of the Jewish people,” Yoffie said.

“I have been saddened and disappointed in the proposed legislation to give one branch of Judaism a monopoly on conversions, and to reject every other stream,” said Conservative Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, vice president of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

The bill “conveys a sense of marginalization or invisibility for the vast majority of North American Jews and their own paths of Jewish fidelity,” he said.

In a prominently featured opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “The Diaspora Need Not Apply,” Tablet Magazine Editor-in-Chief Alana Newhouse came out strongly against the Rotem bill, in no uncertain terms.

Newhouse speculated that future historians would wonder why, “as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe the Jewish state off the map, did the custodians of the 2,000-year-old national dream of the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition of Jewish peoplehood, seemingly calculated to alienate supporters outside its own borders?” Yoffie said that “Israel has so many other problems now which are obviously of such greater significance that these matters pale in comparison. Petty coalition politics should hardly rate a mention when you’re talking about Iran.”

Most Jewish leaders were less concerned with the nuances of the bill, and more with its implicit message of disenfranchisement.

“The truth of the matter is that there is very little patience now in the American Jewish community for a fundamental religious establishment pushing something through for its own narrow purposes,” Yoffie said. “You can explain this a thousand different ways, but what it looks like is religious fundamentalists using the government to get their way, and that just doesn’t sell. The specifics here, interestingly, are not important.”

While the bill provided American Jews with an opportunity to get a quick primer in Israeli parliamentary politics, most felt the situation was “lose-lose.”

“In a sense, everybody loses here,” Yoffie said. “Everybody loses because we’re engaged in this battle among ourselves, the message that’s sent to the broader community is that American Jewish leadership is at odds with the government of Israel.”

Right around Tisha Be’av, Yoffie said, was an “ironic time” to see a bill that caused so much causeless hatred.

If anything, Artson said, the legislation highlighted the intensity of the differences between the religious Right in Israel and the more inclusive, deliberate pluralism of American Jewry. And in doing so, the bill may cause American Jews to question their allegiance to the Jewish state.

“Israel remains a core part of Jewish identity for most American Jews, but that role is more nuanced and complex than the reflexive cheerleading of the past,” Artson said.

“Like family, we can encourage each other to be self-surpassing – more inclusive, more democratic, more creative in pursuit of peace, security and justice.”

For many American Jews, Yoffie said, the contention over the bill highlighted the differences between the Jewish state as imagined by American Jews, and the Jewish state as it exists.

“I’d like the religious monopoly [in Israel] to be overthrown for a free market society,” Yoffie said. “That’s not going to happen in the shorter term. But what we do need now, among Likud and Kadima leadership, is an informal understanding that the State of Israel simply cannot continue to have these crises for which there are heavy prices to be paid.

“Whatever fiddling we do at the edges, there can’t be any significant changes in the status quo which cast a shadow over Diaspora Jewry,” Yoffie said. “That, I would like to believe on some level, is possible.”

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