US Jews: Conversion bill 'disastrous'

Letter to PM warns plan will alienate many N. American Jews.

US Jewry’s struggle against the Conversion Bill reached new heights asthe Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) headed an offensiveagainst the proposed legislation in a strongly-worded letter to PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Signed by the heads of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionistmovements, the letter, which reached  Netanyahu’s office on Monday,urged him to oppose “this dangerous bill” that would be “disastrous tothe unity of the Jewish people.”
The JFNA is the most inclusive institution of Jewish life in NorthAmerica, representing 157 federations and 400 smaller networkcommunities. It does not normally get involved in matters of Israelipolicy.
Monday’s letter echoed a more benign announcement released by theJewish American liberal groups at the beginning of the month, outliningtheir opposition to legislation that “has the potential to divide theJewish community or to alienate Diaspora Jewry.” That announcementfollowed meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and thebill’s sponsor, MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu).
Ayalon and Rotem had travelled to the US in the wake of the JFNA’sappeal to the Israeli government “to enter into dialogue with DiasporaJews before making any proposed changes to the Law of Return.” Ayalonand Rotem aimed to convince Jewish leaders there that the bill wouldnot impact their status or the rights of US converts to immigrate toIsrael.
“We were left with profound misgivings about the proposed ConversionLaw,” Monday’s letter reads. “It is our strong belief... that thisproposed legislation would not only fail to achieve [Rotem’s forecastedresult of easing conversion for thousands of olim from the formerSoviet Union], but will dangerously alter the Law of Return byconsolidating conversion power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate inways that would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people, [by]explicitly [connecting] conversion to a single religious stream. Itdoes not recognize conversion via the streams that represent 85% ofDiaspora Jewry. This message is inconsistent with the democratic idealson which the State of Israel was founded.”
Moreover, the letter continues, “it will undoubtedly alienate manyNorth American Jews from Israel, widening an already precarious andgrowing rift that should concern us all... We are fully committed to asecure Israel... Yet, the proposed conversion law offends with itsdisregard for any religious authority outside the Chief Rabbinate. Asstrongly as we support Israel, we oppose this law.
“Indeed, it is our very unwavering commitment to Israel as both asovereign nation and a worldwide Jewish community that compels us tourge you, in the strongest terms, to oppose this dangerous bill, and weencourage you to use your influence with your coalition partners towithdraw this bill,” it says.
Asked what prompted his organization to issue such an unequivocalletter, JFNA communications director Dani Wassner told The JerusalemPost that “the Law of Return is perhaps the one Israeli law whereDiaspora Jewry can be considered constituents. It is a law thatdirectly affects us. In addition, this is an issue that is extremelyclose to the heart of North American Jewry, and our movement would beremiss if we did not voice our concerns.”
Wassner added, “Our letter to Netanyahu simply echoed the concernswe’ve made to Knesset members – including Ayalon in New York last week– that we continue to be part of this important dialogue and that thisis a matter of utmost concern for Jews everywhere. Right now we areconcerned that this bill could suddenly be raised again, and we thinkit is imperative that a full discussion of the issues takes place, inconsultation with Diaspora Jewry.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said Monday that as the letter had beenreceived only that day, it would be inappropriate to offer a publiccomment on it before sending a response to the JFNA.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, called theletter “testimony to the strong bond between Reform and ConservativeJudaism, and the State of Israel and its citizens” and “evidence of thetrue concern that aggressive, unilateral legislation on conversionswill bring about feelings of alienation and insult among millions ofJews in the Diaspora.”
Kariv added, “We hope that the prime minister will hear the appeal ofthe Jewish leadership in the US, and clarify in his answer that heprefers the unity of the people over short-term coalitionconsiderations.”
Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movementin Israel, said that “the prime minister must listen carefully to thevoices emanating from North American Jewry. Reform and conservativeJews are the core leadership of all the organizations aiding Israel –AIPAC, Hadassah, the Jewish Federations. These are not just the best ofIsrael’s friends, they are real family. It is inconceivable that oneday we ask their help, and the next – we spit in their faces. Netanyahumust declare that he is removing the conversion bill in its currentform from the public agenda.”
But the bill’s proponents seemed unfazed by the new scope of harsh opposition.
“The conversion bill is meant to deal with a specific problem, which isthe situation of some 350,000 non-Jews living here, many of whom wouldlike to convert, serve in the army, and are loyal to the state,” Ayalontold the Post on Monday.
“We don’t want a situation where things could become more problematic;in the next generation or so, the numbers could rise significantly toone million or more,” he went on.
“We believe that the interests of Israel as a whole do coincide withthose of Jews worldwide,” Ayalon added. “We would like to continue thedialogue with our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, and we willcontinue engaging with them on this and a number of other issues.”
Rotem mused to the Post that “when everybody objects to a law, it meansthat it’s a good one.” He noted the atypical grouping of liberal Jewishcongregations with local haredi parties in opposition to the bill.
“My responsibility is to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens whowant to convert to Judaism without unnecessary difficulties,” he said,and reiterated that “nothing in the law will harm the Jewishcommunities in the US in any way. The connection between Israel and USJewry is as important to me as it is to them, but has no pertinence tothis law.”
Rotem asserted that “recognizing their conversions would just create other problems.”