Jewish worshippers covered in prayer shawls pray @kotel 370.
(photo credit: Courtesy Yazel Shavit Communications)
Gal Beckerman, in his study of the Soviet Jewry movement of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s entitled When They Come for US, We’ll Be Gone, puts forward the thesis that the Soviet Jewry movement was not only a victory for Jews living behind the Iron Curtain, but also for American Jewry, whose approach toward the issue of Soviet Jews completely trumped the Israeli government’s approach.
This dichotomy – of American Jewry and its interests and the Israeli government and its interests – set the tone for much of the narrative surrounding the crisis of the conversion bill which reached its crescendo this past Friday. The story was being told of American Jews supporting conversions outside the rabbinate, and the Israeli government opposing them.
And with the seeming agreement on Friday afternoon which essentially froze the proposed bill, it seems once again that the Americans have been successful, even though the Israeli government had greater resources, leverage and much more at stake.
The new “national conversion bill,” as it came to be known, seemingly attacked the prospects of the Reform and Conservative movements’ capacity to gain recognition for their conversions, and it required – according to the accepted narrative – the American Jewish leadership, meaning the heads of the federations, Jewish Agency and even AIPA C, to come and protect American Jewish interests, by putting intense pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prefer their interests over the interests of the coalition.
Though the bill would have endangered the prospects for the Reform and Conservative communities in Israel achieving greater recognition of their conversions, the central victim of the bill would have been the religious Zionist conversions which are now taking place by the hundreds outside the rabbinate. Since the state rolled back a government resolution that would have expanded the number of rabbis performing conversions in Israel, rabbis from the mainstream of religious Zionism have created “Giyur Kahalacha” which is now the largest non-governmental rabbinical court in Israel. (At present, only 33 rabbis are licensed by the state to engage in conversion – despite the fact that there are at present 374,000 people who became citizens under the Law of Return but are listed in the population registry as “lacking religion”) The bill – had it moved forward – would have prevented these Orthodox conversions being performed by municipal rabbis, rosh yeshivas and other prominent rabbis from ever being eligible for recognition.
The conversions of Giyur Kahalacha have the best potential in more than a decade to help the hundreds of thousands of immigrants fully join the Jewish People. The fact that he bill has been frozen still enables tens of thousands to pursue conversion that will hopefully one day be fully recognized in Israel.
Seen in this light, the American Jewish leadership that came to Israel to lobby the government to kill the bill were actually working in Israel’s best interest and the best interest of Israel’s government.
And the ministers who were fighting for the bill to move forward were actually working against Israel’s greater interests.
Ironically, the government was working against the interests of Zionism and the Americans were best expressing the Zionist ideal.
In the end, it wasn’t the “Americans” who won, but in fact Israel. We now have an opportunity and maybe even a responsibility to encourage people to pursue religious Zionist conversion to protect the future for us all.
And maybe this victory is emblematic of the real conclusion to the story of the Soviet Jewry movement. For if it was American Jewry who were successful in bringing the Jews out of Russia, it is Israeli society that is ultimately responsible for making sure that the 1,100,000 immigrants feel fully at home here. Only by working together, hand in hand, for a better Jewish future will we protect Israel for the long term.
The author, a rabbi, is director of ITIM and among the founders of Giyur Kahalacha.