Analysis: Banal but true

How much of a strain on ties with US Jewry will conversion bill's unilateral advancement pose?

Rotem 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Rotem 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))
Diaspora Jews were up in arms yesterday after a controversial bill, which would revise the way Jewish conversions are carried out in Israel while maintaining the Orthodox establishment’s power over the procedure, passed a Knesset committee on its way to debate in the plenum.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism – the powerful umbrella group for the Reform Movement that has over 900 affiliated synagogues throughout the US – expressed his deep disapproval of the proposal, which he said would cede authority to the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate and fiddle with the Law of Return.
RELATED:PM: Conversion bill won't passPM backs dialogue on conversion bill ‘to ensure unity'“All that I can say for sure is that if this legislation passes, it will be a terrible blow to Israel-Diaspora relations,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “We will have a plan of action, but I want the focus at this point to be avoiding passing the law, as opposed to what happens if it passes.”
Criticism of the bill also came from non-religious organizations representing Diaspora Jews. Jewish Federations of North America CEO and president Jerry Silverman complained that the proposal had been drafted without seeking Diaspora Jewry’s consent.
“We, as the Jewish federations, don’t usually get involved in Israel’s political matters, but this is a subject which also concerns us,” Silverman said. “You can’t underestimate the depth of feeling among Diaspora Jewry on this issue.”
The bill introduced by Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem has its beginnings in an election-time promise to reform conversion laws, a matter close to the heart of his party’s support base of Russian-speaking voters – about 300,000 of whom are not halachicly Jewish.
Israel Beiteinu was anxious to introduce legislation proving its commitment to its supporters, but from the start, Rotem’s draft proposal failed to please the non- Orthodox on a number of counts.
First, Rotem proposed to democratize the process by giving municipal rabbis the authority to carry out conversions. The idea behind his proposal was to broaden the playing field, allowing would-be converts to pick rabbis who would offer smoother conversions while upholding certain standards.
However, critics of the bill say it fails to take into account that municipal rabbis are appointees of the Chief Rabbinate, an institution entirely controlled by haredim. Thus, they argue, conversions would not only remain an Orthodox monopoly, excluding the Reform and Conservative movements, but would also remove the relatively moderate religious Zionist movement from circles of influence.
The second issue opponents of the bill have is its timing. At a time when Israel is under attack on several diplomatic fronts, it cannot allow itself to estrange the politically powerful American Jewry, roughly 90 percent of whom are not Orthodox.
Finally, critics of the bill say that whatever merits Rotem’s bill originally had were lost after a series of amendments were introduced to placate haredi elements.
Rotem has defended his bill by saying it would offer thousands of would-be converts the ability to undergo conversion almost immediately.
Regardless, unless the bill is fundamentally altered – which seems rather unlikely at the moment – it is almost certain to remain anathema to Diaspora Jewry.
It is sad that in the Hebrew month of Av, a time when Jews mourn the loss of the First and Second Temples – the latter of which is believed to have been destroyed due to gratuitous hatred and infighting – they seem to be heading for a yet another quarrel.