'A precedent for discrimination'

American Jewish C'tee demands Diaspora consultation on conversion bill.

March 9, 2010 02:54
3 minute read.
David Rotem.

David Rotem 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )


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A major American Jewish organization has criticized the Knesset for pushing ahead with key conversion legislation without consulting with Diaspora Jewish communities.

At issue is a bill before the Knesset Law Committee that would ease the official state conversion process by allowing Orthodox municipal rabbis to conduct conversions without resorting to the state conversion courts.

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The bill has drawn fire from the haredi United Torah Judaism party, which distrusts many municipal rabbis and opposes a clause in the bill that could remove the ability of conversion court judges to annul past conversions.

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For the American Jewish Committee, however, the concern is different. The organization is protesting the bill’s third clause, which would prevent those who undergo Orthodox conversion in Israel from gaining automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. Instead, such converts would have to go through a naturalization procedure stipulated in the Citizenship Law.

The bill would not affect overseas conversions, even those conducted under the more lenient auspices of the Reform or Conservative movements.

Thus, says the organization, the third clause would create a situation where only Orthodox converts who undergo the process within the official Israeli system would be blocked from automatic Israeli citizenship, while all other converts would not face such a restriction.

In a Sunday letter from the AJC’s president Richard Sideman and executive director David Harris to Law Committee chairman MK David Rotem, the American Jewish leaders called the bill “a precedent for discrimination against distinct categories of Jews.”

The letter also expressed “concern” that “a Knesset committee is preparing to consider significant changes to the Citizenship Law of 1952 – changes that may have a direct impact on the status of Jews who arrived at their Jewish identity through choice and conversion, as did our father Abraham – without broad consultation with the Diaspora.”

While it is not clear who added the clause to the bill, sources familiar with the situation said it was likely the contribution of Interior Ministry officials who were uncomfortable with the existence of an automated path to citizenship – conversion followed by aliya – in which the government had no say.

Sideman and Harris warned that “any such move could have profoundly negative implications for Israel’s relations with the Diaspora, and especially American Jewry. This would be damaging at any time, but still worse at this critical juncture, when Israel needs American Jewry’s support in the face of ominous strategic threats.”

According to Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim – an organization that helps prospective converts navigate the Israeli conversion system – the bill “started off in an attempt to provide a partial reform to the chaos that characterizes conversion in Israel.”

But it has undergone several iterations that have introduced problematic elements, including the article that has sparked the ire of the AJC.

Clause 3 “creates an unbelievable irony that someone who converts overseas can make aliya, but someone who converts in Israel can’t,” he said.

“American Jews ought to be concerned, but they shouldn’t be panicked. The bigger panic should be around how the state is still impinging on the authority of overseas communities to perform conversions,” Farber added, a reference to Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar’s efforts to limit the number of overseas Orthodox rabbis permitted to perform conversions.

Diaspora Jews should also be concerned about “the fact that this is endemic of a much broader phenomenon, which is that the State of Israel is wholly unconcerned with conversion as a statement of Jewish identity,” continued Farber. “That is a big problem and should be the concern of Jews all over the world. The state simply refuses to recognize that conversion is a legitimate and appropriate response to the threat of intermarriage.”

Rotem declined to comment, saying he had not yet seen the letter.

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