Politics: The conversion conundrum

Proposed bill has created strange bedfellows.

Livni good for top (photo credit: Kadima Spokesperson)
Livni good for top
(photo credit: Kadima Spokesperson)
There are often strange bedfellows in Israeli politics, but the “conversion revolution” promised by Knesset Law Committee chairman David Rotem of Israel Beiteinu has created some of the oddest alliances seen in quite some time.
On one side you have 350,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who want to convert to Judaism, along with the haredim, who never wanted them to come here in the first place and who want to force them to become Orthodox.
On the other side you have the world’s most famous immigrant to Israel in Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, along with the Jewish federations of North America that helped bring the Russian immigrants, the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements and politicians from left, right and center.
In between you have, as usual, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who in an ideal world would keep all sides happy. But in this case, that doesn’t seem possible.
Rotem’s bill, which passed in his committee but still must pass three Knesset readings, would enable city rabbis to conduct conversions, while ultimately placing the conversion issue under the legal jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Currently, the law is ambiguous enough to allow converts to be legally recognized by the state without the Chief Rabbinate’s involvement.
One side argues that the bill has only positives and no negatives, because it would solve the dilemma of the 350,000 immigrants by enabling them to be converted by moderate city rabbis, without changing the legal status quo for conversions that are conducted abroad.
The other side argues that the bill has only negatives and no positives, because giving the haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate legal authority over conversions would not only prevent those immigrants from converting without agreeing to become Orthodox, it could also prevent Conservative conversions abroad from being recognized in the future.
This fight between the two sides is expected to heat up next week when Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman insists the bill must be raised in the Knesset before its summer recess begins. It is still unclear whether Netanyahu will prevent the bill from being voted on to satisfy US Jewish leaders or whether to cater to Lieberman he will allow it to be voted on – and almost definitely voted down.
OPPOSITION LEADER Tzipi Livni told The Jerusalem Post that instead of giving the haredim a monopoly on conversions and alienating Diaspora Jewry, Netanyahu should put his foot down and come up with own solution that all sides could live with.
“Instead of alternating between caving into Lieberman and then caving into Shas and Labor, he should be engaging everyone involved in deep dialogue,” Livni said. “For the sake of coalition quiet, he is not preventing future problems that can jeopardize Israel’s future.”
She accused Netanyahu of being ungrateful to Diaspora Jews, who have been on the front lines over the past year in the conflicts between Israel and the world that she blames the prime minister for instigating.
“Netanyahu asks them to help with the crises and defend his policies,” she said. “This bill would make it harder for Diaspora Jewry to feel a connection to Israel when we need to be doing everything possible to draw them closer. It’s especially hard for young Americans to connect to Israel if Israel becomes a synonym for haredim.”
Livni said that when she was immigrant absorption minister, she had worked on a remedy for the problem with the expert on conversions in Israel, Rabbi Haim Druckman. She said allowing city rabbis to do conversions should be part of the solution and it was in Kadima’s platform, but it is wrong to pay a price to the haredim for that change of allowing them to require converts to keep all the commandments.
“One item in the legislation is important, but the other is impossible to swallow,” she said. “We have to stop the trend of giving the monopoly on everything Jewish to the haredim, who do not have an interest in there being more conversions. Ariel Sharon said we are Jews and we are connected to Jewish tradition, but if we had to go through conversion, we would fail because we would have to change our lifestyle to haredi.”
Livni accused Israel Beiteinu of consistently failing to solve the problems of the Russian immigrant population that it represents.
DEPUTY FOREIGN Minister Danny Ayalon of Israel Beiteinu responded that Kadima didn’t change the situation when it was in power, so Livni’s accusations were hypocritical. Ayalon is an eloquent defender of the legislation, in part because his wife Anne converted to Judaism and is far from haredi.
“We need to do a better job of explaining to our brothers and sisters in America and around the world the merits of the bill and the fact that it will not change the status quo,” Ayalon said. “Israeli leaders must provide answers to children who ask their parents why they are not considered Jews, couples who cannot get married and soldiers who do not receive the proper respect. The 350,000 immigrants who are not considered Jews are a national strategic problem that must be solved now, because in another generation or two it could tear our society apart.”
Ayalon said the bill would not supersede a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that the Interior Ministry must register as Jews Israeli citizens who were converted by the Conservative or Reform movements here or abroad.
He stressed that the neighborhood rabbis, who will get to know the people they convert, would also marry them, which would solve the current problem whereby Israelis who do not convert through the Chief Rabbinate are prevented from marrying in the country.
Ayalon added that rabbis who convert people would also be the only ones enabled to annul the conversions, which would solve another problem of mass annulments of past conversions.
Rotem, who worked on the compromise with the haredim for two years, accused Livni of being “a hostage to the Reform Movement in the United States.” He said there was no reason for Jews in any religious stream in the US to fear his bill, because it only affects conversions here and it does not require Israeli converts to become Orthodox.
“The law doesn’t demand actually maintaining all of the commandments, but merely taking upon themselves the yoke of all of the commandments and accepting all of them as binding,” Rotem said. “It does not mean that you have to follow all of them all of the time. It does not address how you choose to live your life after your conversion.”