Analysis: ‘Mikve law’ throws cold water on Israel-Diaspora relations

The legislation in effect bans the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements from using public mikvaot for their conversion ceremonies.

A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative] (photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
A mikve, the Jewish ritual bath [Illustrative]
(photo credit: CHABAD.ORG)
When laws that are passed are as controversial as the mikve legislation approved on Monday night, there will be a lot of sound and fury from ideological and political opponents of the government and the law itself.
The legislation in effect bans the Reform and Masorti (Conservative) movements from using public mikvaot for their conversion ceremonies, and has been fiercely opposed by progressive Jewish leaders in Israel and the US.
In the case of the “mikve law” and other legislation relating to the status of non-Orthodox Jews, concerns are frequently raised that such laws adversely affect Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry, particularly with the large and powerful Jewish community in North American Jewry, where the large majority of Jews are non-Orthodox.
However, in the specific case of the mikve law, the damage is likely to be minimal. To start with, it is unlikely that many Reform or Conservative Jewish congregants in the US are going to be particularly aware of the new law.
North American Jewish leaders have lobbied hard against the law, but in the grand scheme of Israel’s political and legislative activity, combined with the political upheavals and drama playing out at the moment in the US election campaign, the mikve law is not going to register prominently on the average Diaspora Jew’s radar.
In addition, a proposal is in the works by which the government will provide funds to build up to four mikvaot for the Reform and Masorti movements to use for conversion ceremonies. The progressive denominations explicitly supported this solution when the issue was before the Supreme Court, on the condition that the government pay for the mikvaot.
Analysts have voiced the opinion that Israel’s political conflict with the Palestinians is far more important in determining the way North American Jews perceive the Jewish state than is the status of non-Orthodox rights in the country.
Still, laws that purposefully discriminate against Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel are not going to endear their religious counterparts in North America to the Jewish state. Such laws, along with the failure to implement the Western Wall agreement, the unequal legal standing of, and funding for, the Reform and Masorti movements in Israel, and the vituperative denunciations of progressive Jewry by haredi politicians, will have a cumulative negative affect.
Steven Cohen, a research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College, an institution of the Reform Movement, says that American Jewry increasingly perceives Israel to be different from its own self-perception as politically and socially liberal.
Cohen says that this trend is already being reflected in the decreasing focus Jewish Federations are giving to Israel for fund-raising campaigns, which he says are increasingly directed to Jewish education and social concerns among North American Jewry.
“Israel used to be the most mobilizing force in American Jewry, but now it’s the most polarizing force in American Jewry and creates more disputes and vitriol than anything else,” said the professor.
Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, is more sanguine.
Although conceding that there is an ongoing erosion of Israel’s relationship with the largest Jewish Diaspora community, which the mikve law will contribute to, he says nevertheless that no single big crisis will ruin this relationship, and certainly not the legislation passed on Monday night. Rosner also rejects somewhat the conversation on the issue, saying that instead the focus should be on how such laws and attitudes are bad for Israel itself.
Still, he says that if the Jewish people can be regarded as a big family, then it is less likely that there will be an irreconcilable breakdown of the relationship between the two parties.
“Alienation doesn’t depend on every small detail, and I don’t think Israel is becoming so terrible that Diaspora Jews won’t be able to tolerate it,” says Rosner.
He also argues that Israel and North American Jews find themselves in such different circumstances, geographically, politically and culturally, that it is illogical to expect that their approach to the different issues facing the two communities will be the same.
“Attempts to bring us and our cultures closer together will be problematic, so our goal needs to be to manage a relationship in which we disagree, and even disagree strongly, on many issues,” he says.
What is clear is that this relationship is getting increasingly tempestuous, and managing it in the face of antagonistic legislation like the mikve law, as well as the increasing cultural and political divides, is not going to get any easier.