Your People, My People

The usually divided American Jewish community has united in its opposition to the proposed Conversion Bill

rotem311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME SINCE the North American Jewish community has been so united on an issue involving Israel. Just when it seemed that the Jewish community was at its most divided over the Obama Administration’s efforts – or pressure – to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the peace table, and just at a time when American Jews seem most split over their own responses to Israel’s activities in the territories, Israeli politicians managed to unite tens of thousands of American Jews from widely different political persuasions.
At the behest of more than a dozen established American Jewish religious and communal organizations, American Jews have written, en masse, letters and e-mails to Israeli officials imploring them to stop the proposed Conversion Bill and have spoken out more vocally than they have in a long time.
The legislation, introduced in mid-July by Knesset Member David Rotem, an Orthodox Jew who is a representative of the overwhelmingly secular, Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu, is ostensibly intended to alleviate the difficulties faced by more than an estimated 350,000 Russian immigrants, who made aliya as part of the Law of Return but who are not considered Jewish by halakha, Jewish law.
The proposed legislation will, for the first time, give the Chief Rabbinate legal authority over all conversions in Israel, thus invalidating the 2002 High Court ruling requiring the Interior Ministry to recognize conversions by all denominations performed in Israel or abroad. Furthermore, conversions will be recognized only if the convert “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halakha.” This, of course, refers to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox interpretations of halakha, excluding the Conservative and Reform communities and delegitimizing the 85 percent of Diaspora Jews who are non- Orthodox.
The bulk of the American Jewish community is adamantly against the bill. “American Jews, who see religious extremism as a huge concern everywhere, don’t understand how in a democratic country like Israel, you have a monopolistic religious establishment that is coercive,” says Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, head of the Union of Reform Judaism. “They ask why Israel doesn’t have religious pluralism and freedom.”
“Israel is the only democratic country in the world that discriminates against religious streams of the majority of Jews,” charges Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. “Their rabbis are not accepted, nor are their conversions. It’s demoralizing not to have full status. The response should not be to walk away, but to fight for equality and pluralism in Israel.”
It is not merely the Reform and Conservative movements that are against the bill. Groups as diverse as the Jewish Federations of North America, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Agency, Meretz USA, and the New Israel Fund, not to mention Israel’s Progressive and Masorti organizations, have sent e-mails urging their constituencies to write letters to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the country, issued a public statement that said the Rotem bill “may not be perfect.”
Rabbi Shmuel Golden, vice president of the RCA, tells The Report that the RCA would be “more comfortable” if the rabbinate were “more modern Orthodox and Zionist, but we must live with reality. We must work with that reality and make them understand the concerns of the American community.”
Aspokesman in the Prime Minister’s Office tells The Report they received about 12,000 e-mails and a couple of hundred letters in the few days following Rotem’s introduction of the Knesset bill and the protests keep coming.
At the same time, high-profile publications, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the US and in Israel, have been publishing editorials and op-eds.
The Jewish Forward’s senior columnist, J.J.
Goldberg, formerly a senior editor for The Report, attacked the conversion bill vehemently, while Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet, a Jewish-content website, complained in an oped in The New York Times that “the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government’s definition of Judaism, for all Jews.”
But apparently it wasn’t just the thousands of calls and letters from American Jews that caught Netanyahu’s attention. When several Jewish U.S. Senators, led by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden and including N.J. Senator Frank Lautenberg and Michigan Senator Carl Levin, signed a letter to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.
Michael Oren condemning the conversion bill days after its submission to the Knesset, Israeli leadership may have finally realized that this issue had sparked a conflagration well beyond what they had intended.
Days after the bill was approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in a 5-4 vote at the July 25 weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu announced, “The unity of the Jewish People is always necessary, but is especially necessary – more than ever – against the threats the State of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole are now facing. We will maintain that unity.”
Netanyahu put the conversion bill on hold for six months, and the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements agreed to suspend their petition to the High Court of Justice demanding state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel. Netanyahu also placed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky in charge of a dialogue between the various streams of Judaism, the government and “all relevant bodies,” according to the government’s statement.
Despite the political ramifications – the rift with Rotem’s powerful boss, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, could potentially endanger Netanyahu’s shaky cabinet – Netanyahu obviously got the message from the American Jewish community. American Jewish leaders were pleased with his actions – to a point. As Yoffie tells The Report, “It would have been nice for him to have done this earlier and kept this spectacle from happening. This was not a good time to have an extended crisis. This has tarnished Israel’s image. It was a terrible mistake.”
The fact that Netanyahu did not seem to anticipate the furor that the Rotem bill would cause seems to indicate that Netanyahu’s heralded understanding of American Jews notwithstanding, his government has seriously underestimated the discomfort many American Jews feel with Israeli domestic policies. Just when Netanyahu most needs American Jews to support Israeli policies in Congress and to the Obama Administration, he seems to have forgotten that the American Jewish community is still among the most liberal in terms of domestic policies and, increasingly, American Jews view Israel as anti-liberal and even anti-democratic.
“Israel cannot take the relationship with North American Jews for granted. It’s hard for North American Jews to fully want to appreciate what’s going on in civil society in Israel,” says Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the New Israel Fund (NIF).
Increasingly, the subject of Israel has become the largest wedge issue within the American Jewish community. Some American Jews – especially from the generation that grew up marveling at Israel’s ability to make the desert bloom and win the Six Day War – have largely continued to support Israel unquestionably. But an increasing number of American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, see Israel as the Goliath and the Palestinians as the David. They cannot connect with what they view as an unjustified, immoral, ongoing occupation or with recent decisions by the Israeli government, such as the decision to expel some 400 Israeli-born children of foreign workers.
Peter Beinart, professor at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institution, garnered tremendous attention when he published an article this spring entitled, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in the New York Review of Books. In it, he suggests that the growing rift between Israeli and American Jews is, at least partly, because the two populations have moved politically in opposite directions.
The conversion issue, he adds, “is yet another example of an Israel that is seen as hostile to personal freedom on a whole range of issues. For the Israeli rabbinate to have control over marriage is seen as highly illiberal to Americans. One component of the Jewish community gets upset about this, but draws a line at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But the younger generation sees it as all of one piece… The values of non-discrimination and free speech are very robust among American Jewish youth, outside Orthodoxy.”
With the proposed legislation, Israel is perceived as becoming increasingly xenophobic, intransigent, right-wing and conservative, symbolized by the increasing power of the ultra- Orthodox, the extremists among the West Bank settlers, and right-wing parties, such as Rotem’s Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra- Orthodox Shas. While continuing to express concern for Israel’s security – especially as Iran seems poised to build nuclear weaponry – American Jews are worried about the fate of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And they view the proposed conversion bill, even if it has been tabled for at least six months, as one more reason for them to worry.
JEWISH LEADERS ACROSS THE United States acknowledge the problems faced by Russian immigrants and understand that a solution is required. Because they fit the definition of “Jew” as defined by the Law of Return, but not as interpreted by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishment, these immigrants live in a legal limbo, unable to marry a Jew, adopt a Jew or be buried as a Jew within Israel. And the current unwieldy Israeli regulations make conversion difficult, if not impossible, for many.
In 1998, following extensive back-andforth discussion with Jewish leaders in the Diaspora, the government established special conversion courts, aimed at scaling back the ultra-Orthodox restrictions on conversion, which were seeping quickly into the Chief Rabbinate as well. But in 2008, a local rabbi in Ashdod annulled the conversion of a woman who had been converted some 15 years earlier, because, he contended, she was not observing Orthodox law. As a result, doubt was cast on the validity of all of the conversions performed by the conversion courts, and the entire system has been in chaos ever since.
With bitter irony, Jewish leaders agree that the Rotem bill won’t even help the Russians it is ostensibly intended to help. Noting that the vast majority of Russian immigrants in Israel are secular or non-observant, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, a New York-based, modern- Orthodox rabbi, tells The Report, “The Rotem bill was intended to increase the number of Russian converts to Judaism, but the Russian immigrants willing to undergo an Orthodox conversion have largely already done so. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
The proposed legislation may provide a user-friendly, simplified conversion process for those who would prefer an Orthodox conversion, although Rabbi Seth Farber, founder and director of the Israeli non-profit organization Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center, argues that even now municipal rabbis can convert Russian immigrants, but that the Chief Rabbinate stopped issuing conversion certificates a few years ago.
The requirement that “all converts take upon themselves all mitzvot according to halakha,” is particularly objectionable, Rebecca Caspi, senior vice president and director general of the Israel office of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), tells The Report from Jerusalem. Caspi contends that opposition to the conversion bill will remain high on the Federations’ agenda “until it is brought successfully to a conclusion.
There’s no question that the Federation movement has come out with a very clear message on this issue.”
Since the vast majority of involved American Jews identify themselves as Reform or Conservative, says Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly for Conservative rabbis, “this gun isn’t pointed at the people who are assimilated, but at those who are invested [in their Judaism].”
Everyday, Schonfeld tells The Report, she sends an update to 1,600 rabbis throughout the world. “And I have a high click rate,” she notes. She and other rabbis speculate that the conversion issue may be the top subject of many High Holiday sermons next month. In fact, in an open letter to Netanyahu, published in the popular on-line Huffington Post, she joked, “I have bad news and I have good news.
The bad news is that rabbis all over the world are thanking you for giving them a Rosh Hashanah sermon. The good news is that you get to write every one of them.”
She continues, “The sermon we all want to give is one in which you, as a visionary leader, make an unambiguous statement in opposition to this bill, which divides Israel from the Diaspora.”
“The current outrage,” says NIF’s Sokatch, “stems from the further marginalizing of Reform and Conservative in Israel.
This feels like a message and a signal. We [American Jews] all agree that we have an obligation and responsibility to Israel. We are asked to open our hearts and wallets and give our energy and passion to Israel. But then we are told, ‘We don’t consider your rabbis as real rabbis and your religion as real Judaism.’” “THIS MAY BE THE STRAW that breaks the camel’s back,” Sokatch continues, noting that the conversion bill comes after so many other issues in Israel that have alienated American Jews. “The conversion issue may get shelved, but [Israel Religious Action Center executive director] Anat Hoffman was still arrested [at the Kotel for carrying a Torah] and B’tselem (a human-rights organization monitoring Israel’s activities in the West Bank), the NIF and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are still being attacked in Israel.”
Similarly, Schonfeld points to the young American Jews who take the time, money and energy to visit Israel and are confronted with a Kotel that has been legally transformed into an Orthodox synagogue and they say, “This place isn’t for me.”
Speaking in the same vein, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia, tells The Report, “When people go to the Western Wall, I want them to think ‘Wow, this is a piece of my history,’ but how do I explain that it’s become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue? Israel is going down a dangerous path unless the influence of the haredim is curbed. I have a problem with a country that is subsidizing and capitulating to a group that wants to dictate life in Israel, including [gendersegregated] buses and forbidding women to pray at the Kotel. If folks go to Israel and see our [Conservative] community being discriminated against in Israel, they’ll say, ‘This isn’t the Jewish homeland, but a haredi homeland,’ and they won’t feel a connection.”
Beinart notes that just months after America elected its first black president, Israelis elected a right-wing government that includes the haredi party, Shas, and the Yisrael Beiteinu party that threatens to demand loyalty oaths from its minority Arab Israeli community.
Furthermore, US President Barack Obama, with his emphasis on diplomacy, contrasts sharply with Lieberman, who has managed to alienate Israeli allies, such as Germany, Egypt and Turkey.
“You have to understand the Left of today and their experiences during the Bush administration,” Beinart tells The Report in an extensive telephone interview. “The current Israeli right-wing coalition’s commitment to democratic values is less substantial than [former U.S.
vice president] Dick Cheney’s. There’s a vibrant political movement on the left in the US and they are suspicious of national security claims that deal with personal freedom.”
In Israel, Beinart says, the situation is the opposite. “There’s a rising tendency to be willing to tolerate extreme violations of personal liberties in the name of national security. For anyone paying attention to the news coming out of Israel, it’s damaging.”
The crisis comes at a time when American Jews are trying so hard to counterbalance the growing delegitimization of Israel around the world, and at a time when American Jewish leaders are struggling with a perceived weakening of the relationship that especially young American Jews have with Israel.
“When there’s growing alienation of American Jews to Israel, Israel shouldn’t want to take any steps that delegitimize the religious choice of a majority of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, tells The Report.
All of this bundles together into the overarching question of what right do American Jews have to question or interfere in internal Israeli issues? There’s been tremendous disagreement about the answer to that when it comes to the policies Israel has with its Palestinian neighbors. Observers note, for example, that this is one of the reasons that J Street, which encourages the Obama Administration to push both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a two-state solution, has been so controversial. Created at least in part as a counter to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which supports the policies of any Israeli government, J Street actively lobbies Congress and the president for strong American diplomatic leadership in the peace process.
Other Israel supporters argue that J Street, and American Jews in general, have no right to interfere in Israeli policies and should support whatever policies Israel’s democratically elected government promotes.
In an indication of the extent to which Israeli leaders are concerned about the response in the US, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar wrote a letter to The New York Times on August 6. “Israeli laws should be determined by residents of Israel who defend its security and bear its burdens,” he wrote. “If our Jewish brethren immigrate to Israel, we will welcome them with great joy and then they would be entitled, as citizens, to struggle for the adoption of their perspective.”
Farber, who considers himself modern Orthodox, argues that while American Jews shouldn’t have a say in Israel’s security policies because they don’t serve in the Israeli army, “on the issue of Jewish peoplehood, they should have a say.” The conversion question, he contends, “is a touchstone issue for many people. There are not many times when the religious status quo is threatened in Israel. That’s reason for alarm. I’m happy North American Jews took a stand on this.”
Rabbi Uri Regev, head of Hidush, an Israel group that promotes religious pluralism, contends that even if the conversion bill was designed to help Russian immigrants in Israel, American Jews have the right to speak their minds. “American Jews are the ones who tied themselves to the Russian consulates and demonstrated against the Soviet Union to let its Jews emigrate. There’s no moral justification for saying American Jews can’t be involved, that Russia can be a target [of criticism], but not Israel. It’s a misguided notion that it’s anti- Israel to criticize Israel about this.
“In fact,” he adds, “this is the most pro- Israel stand that people can take. Pro-Israel advocacy and what is in Israel’s best interest is to ask it to live up to its own founding vision.”
The American Jewish leadership, asserts Regev, must understand that Israel is facing two conflicts: the Arabs and the issue of state and religion. “To paraphrase [founding prime minister] David Ben-Gurion, ‘We need to fight for peace as if there were no unholy alliance of state and religion, and we must fight the unholy alliance between state and religion, as if there were no conflict.’” LIKE FARBER, MANY JEWISH leaders see the conversion crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the current system and enact serious reform, and express optimism for the future. Schonfeld says that the appointment of Sharansky to lead the discussion about the bill during the next six months is significant. “He’s such a symbol of what it means to be a Jewish community. He himself stands for Jewish religious freedom in the world.”
But the weight is great, she adds. “History will judge us by what happens in the next six months. We will be judged by the extent we are able to use this moment.”
Most American, and many Israeli, Jewish leaders believe that the conversion issue should not be a matter for the Knesset to decide. Regev wants what Israel considers a constitutional bill, or a Basic Law of Freedom of Religion, that would separate Judaism and the state. “We need freedom of religion and equality,” he says.
“We already have some drafts of the bill, but it will take the political will to pass it and will involve mobilization along the lines of the conversion crisis.” But he warns, “All of these crises and those waiting to happen are connected at the roots and if there is no root treatment, we’ll spend the rest of our lives fighting.”
Greenberg’s solution is to change the traditional requirements of religious law so that converts are accepted who are not fully observant, but who are committed to Jewish ethics and peoplehood. “The key is the acceptance of pluralism,” he says. Indeed, according to Greenberg, the idea that a convert “must be totally observant is not required historically… If one keeps the ethical commandments, that’s the biggest chunk.”
Farber tells The Report that he recently argued that as part of its newly established Jewish Unity Commission, the Jewish Agency For Israel should take over the rabbinical courts. However, Sharansky rejected this suggestion.
“If it’s not JAFI, then it must be apolitical. People have to appreciate that this is a historical challenge that must be faced.”
That doesn’t mean halakha should be left behind, but a consensus must be reached, he says, adding that some sort of oversight must be created, with milestones and measurements and transparency. “There should be a businessman, not a rabbi, leading the conversion process but with clear policies and that takes into account the wide range of viewpoints of the Jewish people.” And, he says, there must be constant dialogue, recruiting Jews around the world to “this international challenge.”
Farber also says that the federations “should get involved in the Jewish peoplehood issue and focus less on the security part.” When Federation missions come to Israel, he complains, they look “at the sexy part, they come see an army base. I think the American Jewish leadership should come together to Israel and I’ll show them a rabbinical or a conversion court.”
Now he says that he would have preferred that there was no six-month hiatus on the conversion issue. “I would have let the fight continue. I would have let it upset people more. I would have preferred that the rabbinate take responsibility for alienating the North American Jewish community and that Rotem would have understood the importance of the North American Jews.”
Yet Farber remains optimistic. The conversion crisis, he says, “provided the great opportunity I’ve been looking for. This is not a victory, but an opening of a window. North American Jews should put tremendous political pressure on Netanyahu.”
Many Jewish leaders, in Israel and in North America, however, wonder if the passion for this issue can be sustained, or whether the fire will die out as other issues – in America or in Israel, economic or diplomatic – take front stage.
Says NIF’s Sokatch, “I want the North American Jewish community to stay on this issue. And if the prime minister and his people don’t find a way to kill this bill, the passion will be redoubled.”
As he notes, “this is a safe issue for the North American Jewish community to support. The left, center, even center right all agree. This is something that unites us. It’s a safe way to express our outrage about other issues that we may be afraid to speak up about, such as the settlement building in the West Bank and the forcible evacuation of Palestinians in East Jerusalem."
Rotem did attempt to get input from the American Jewish community. In April, he brought his proposed bill to the US and met with American Jewish leaders to discuss parts of the bill to which American Jewish leaders had already quietly expressed their opposition.
After he returned to Israel, these leaders thought their concerns had been heard and would be addressed.
Then, however, they learned that Rotem had added a clause that would have amended the Law of Return, stating that a non-Jew who came to Israel and subsequently converted, either in Israel or abroad, would not be eligible for Israeli citizenship. Only if their conversion preceded their visit to Israel would they qualify for citizenship. American Jews felt directly affected and Rotem pulled the clause before he introduced the bill to the Knesset.
Rotem now believes the American Jewish community should not criticize his bill because, he tells The Report in an e-mail, “it doesn’t impact them.” With regard to an article published in The New York Times in late July, in which he was quoted as saying that Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders are “acting like idiots,” he tells The Report that he was “misquoted” and writes, “I never called the leaders of the Reform [movement] ‘idiots.’ I said their campaign is idiotic because… my bill has nothing to do with the conversions in the Diaspora. Therefore their campaign dealing with the split with the Jewish people in the Diaspora has no basis, and is therefore idiotic.”