(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
The original intent of Israel Beiteinu’s MK David Rotem conversion reform bill
was honorable. He hoped to alleviate a nearly untenable situation in which full
rights as an Israeli citizen in an ostensibly secular Jewish state are dependent
on a kosher stamp of approval from the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.
idea was to make it a little easier for non-Jewish immigrants from the Former
Soviet Union to get that stamp by streamlining the Orthodox conversion
After the disintegration of Soviet Communism, about a million
immigrants arrived in Israel, one-third of whom are considered non-Jews
according to Halacha. Though their mothers were not Jewish, these immigrants
received automatic citizenship under the Law of Return because their fathers or
grandparents or spouses were.
Rotem reasoned that if these non-Jewish
Israelis could be converted in an Orthodox ceremony, they would not have to
travel abroad to marry but could do so in institutions controlled by the
Orthodox Chief Rabbinate; they would not have to be buried in separate
cemeteries but could be interred along with their Jewish fellow citizens; they
would not represent an intermarriage threat to Jewish Israelis but would be
knowledgeable about Jewish heritage and practice; and they would feel
comfortable on Jewish holidays celebrated nationwide such as Pessah, Succot and
As an Orthodox Jew himself, Rotem was also understandably
motivated by a desire to maintain the Orthodox monopoly over religious ceremony
and services. He realized that if some 350,000 non-Jews and their offspring were
not allowed to marry or be buried with fellow citizens who happened to be
Jewish, pressure would eventually build to dismantle the Orthodox
However well-intentioned, Rotem’s solution was doomed to
failure. It is sheer naivete to think that tens of thousands of agnostic FSU
immigrants will undergo a religious transformation even if shepherded by the
most moderate, open-minded and friendly Orthodox rabbi.
The decision to
convert is an inherently personal religious act that should not become a
condition for the receipt of full citizenship rights, such as the right to
Now, due to the meddling of Shas and United Torah Judaism, what
began as an attempt to streamline the conversion process has turned into a major
standoff between Jews – and this at a time of the year when the mistake of
baseless hatred, the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple, should be
particularly prominent in the Jewish consciousness.
On one side are
conservative elements who define Jewishness in its most narrow sense, as someone
born to a Jewish mother or who converted in an Orthodox ceremony.
other side are liberal-minded Jews who are seeking a more inclusive
of Jewishness that can find room for the sincere convert to non-Orthodox
and for the FSU immigrant born to a non-Jewish mother who speaks Hebrew
an accent, is willing to die for his country, and sees his future in
the Jewish people.
THE DISPUTE between these two camps may never be
resolved. But Israel Beiteinu’s behavior in recent days is only making
worse. By insisting on ramming through legislation that grants the
haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate “responsibility” for conversions, it
upsetting the fragile status quo and is forcing to the forefront
between liberal and traditional Jews that, bitter experience has shown
again, are best left unspoken.
This is a crisis of vast potential
consequence for the Jewish people worldwide – a crisis that, as was seen
began to play out along similar lines during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first
ministership, threatens to deepen rifts between different streams of
and between Israel and the Diaspora.
The closest our fractured people
came to finding a viable solution to the conversion dilemma was in the
diligently and lovingly hammered out by the Neeman Committee 12 years
the involvement of representatives the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform
of Judaism. Under this framework, non- Orthodox rabbis and teachers
would play a
role in preparing candidates for a halachicly recognized conversion. To
abiding shame, this Solomonic arrangement was rejected by the Chief
and a historic opportunity to further Jewish unity was lost.
the schisms that doomed this initiative have all-too-evidently not
healed in the
years since, the present status quo strategy of intentional ambiguity is
only way of preventing the further fracturing of the Jewish people.
staved off a similar crisis in the late-1990s. He urgently needs to