Yishai joins conversion forum, perhaps without realizing

Neeman calls for Jewish unity while slamming diaspora Jewry for focusing on conversion and not on ‘the major issue’ of assimilation.

By JONAH MANDEL
June 24, 2011 03:53
Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

Eli Yishai 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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Attendants of the Israeli Presidential Conference panel on conversion were witness to a rare moment of Jewish unity on Thursday when Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) briefly shared a table and an address with a panel also comprised of non-Orthodox leaders, along with Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and head of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky.

Organizers had had a hard time finding a person willing to represent the ultra-orthodox perspective on conversion at the panel. The man who finally agreed, Rabbi Yecheskel Weinfeld, announced a short while before the event that he wouldn’t be attending, without explaining why.

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Yishai entered the room shortly before the panel began, apparently to greet Sharansky and Neeman, and then at the behest of panel moderator Shmuel Rosner, agreed to stay a bit and say a few words. The lack of a haredi speaker was probably part of what prompted Rosner to ask Yishai to stay and take part in the discussion.

The minister agreed, greeted each of the other participants – including Reform Rabbi Peter Knobel, former president of Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), and former president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel Rabbi Gilah Dror – and sat at the table. After Rosner began his opening remarks, Sharansky whispered something in his ear, following which Rosner announced that Yishai would speak, and then had to leave. Speculations were that once Yishai realized what type of a panel he was sitting in on, and who his co-panelists were, he decided to bolt.

Yishai took the floor, and gave an overview of the recent controversy around military conversions, including the attempted legislation by MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) to grant army conversions autonomous status from the Chief Rabbinate.

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Yishai stressed how President of the Shas Council of Torah Sages Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had ruled in favor of “the most lenient way of conversions, within the framework of Jewish law.”

The minister then mentioned a study from 10 years ago in the US which identified a matrilineal “Jewish gene” and patrinileal “Jewish priestly gene,” scientific insight that bewildered the audience but was an argument to prove that “conversion must be according to Halacha.”

Before leaving the room, Yishai wrapped up by saying that “the power of the Jewish people is in its unity. We must act within the framework of Halacha, with Jewish character, in the Jewish people.

There is no other way to retain the unity of the Jewish people in hard times. We must unite around a Jewish, principled way, to unify the people.”

Sharansky then said that “the fact that Yishai came, and agreed to sit at the table with us, is a great achievement.”

This rings especially true since the current round-table on conversion – formed and led by Sharansky and Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser in the wake of the maelstrom around Rotem’s conversion bill last summer – has no haredi representative, from neither Shas nor United Torah Judaism, though a representative from Yishai’s Interior Ministry is said to be a staunch delegate of the minister’s weltanschauung.

Neeman in his speech continued Yishai’s plea for unity, but also took the opportunity to lash out at US Jewry for focusing on the conversion issue in Israel, while the true problem facing the diaspora is assimilation. The minister was referring to last year’s massive pressure from US Jewry on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to quell Rotem’s initial conversion bill, which would have given the Chief Rabbinate the authority over conversion in Israel for the price of enabling more conversion courts and lenient rabbinical judges.

Conversion in Israel, Neeman said, is different than in the US, since it entails legal rights – citizenship – and therefore “clear, legal norms” on the process must be agreed upon.

“The question is not which stream in Judaism is good,” the minister said. “In Israel, we have a problem. We have hundreds of thousands of illegal emigrants, especially from Africa, who came illegally and want to stay here. No country in the world, including the enlightened United States, would allow them – through an easy, religious procedure – to become citizens of the state. This is an Israeli problem.”

Neeman, who has excellent English, chose to make his address in Hebrew, as if to stress that the conversion issues at hand were an Israeli, not American, problem.

“The problem facing diaspora Jewry is not conversion,” Neeman continued.

“The major issue there is the high percentage disappearing from the world of Judaism.

What Hitler didn’t succeed in doing is happening now; there is terrible assimilation.”

Neeman stressed that he recognizes and respects every stream in Judaism – Lithuanians, Hassidim, Reform, Conservative.

“They are all Jews; that is not the problem. The problem is baseless hatred,” he said, using the title of the forthcoming book by Rene Levy on that issue.

“Thirteen or fourteen years ago, I sat down with all the streams in Judaism, and we reached understandings,” he said of the committee he headed. “Conversion has legal ramifications, unlike the US, where it doesn’t. You can’t let anyone who wants to convert do so, since that enables them to enter the country and receive citizenship, or change the status of an alien to legal. You must reach clear, legal norms. The body that torpedoed the issue was the Chief Rabbinate, who decided not to accept the committee’s findings. Today, they are penitent,” he said wryly.

“The committee said that conversion should be according to Jewish law. You must understand what the problem is, and what the solution is. The solution is to sit at a round-table, talk respectfully, and refrain from baseless hatred.”

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