Washington Watch: Are you Jewish enough?

The greatest threat to US-Israel relations has nothing to do with a secret peace plan, settlements, or boycotts. It's a question of religion.

young americans idf 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
young americans idf 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The greatest threat to US-Israel relations has nothing to do with a secret American peace plan, settlement construction, a new intifada, another Arab oil boycott or Palestinian civil war. It is religious extremists – Jewish not Muslim.
The latest skirmish in the “who is a Jew” wars is taking place in the Knesset Law Committee, where two right-wing parties, one secular and the other haredi, are writing a new law governing conversion that has many American Jewish leaders worried about the far-reaching impact on support for Israel.
The legislation gives the Chief Rabbinate, run by the haredim, a monopoly on conversions and overturns a High Court ruling providing Israeli citizenship for Jews converted by all branches of Judaism.
Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, called the measure divisive, saying it would define many in the Jewish world “as second- class Jews.”
“By recognizing Orthodox conversions, and not the conversions of other streams of Judaism, it causes Diaspora Jews to feel that they are being made ‘illegal.’ This is stupidity,” he said.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has said the law “delegitimizes most of North American Jewry.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Movement, called the legislation “foolish, disruptive” and said, “It will cause an anger amid American Jews when Israel needs its support the most.”
SEVERAL YEARS ago, when legislation before the Knesset defining “who is a Jew” was about to come to a vote, a delegation of wealthy and influential American Jewish leaders quickly flew to Jerusalem to lobby the prime minister and Knesset to block the new law. It was a very personal thing: Many of them or their children and grandchildren were intermarried, many converted by Reform and Conservative rabbis, and they feared this would brand them all non-Jews.
Their message was clear: Why should we work so hard for a cause that says we don’t respect you, we don’t want you and we don’t even consider you a real Jew? It is even more valid today as the religious establishment’s domination spreads across Israeli society.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said the bill will not come up for a final vote, but that could change in the face of pressure from its two principle backers, Israel Beiteinu and Shas, who have the power to bring down his government if they don’t get their way.
The two made a deal: The hard-line Israel Beiteinu, whose constituency is largely Russian and secular and is headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, wanted a law permitting civil marriage, and Shas is the haredi Sephardi party whose main interest is in draining the state treasury to support its institutions and interests, traded that for the conversion issue.
The Interior Ministry, which is run by Shas, on paper recognizes Reform and Conservative conversions conducted outside the country, but under the proposed law the Chief Rabbinate could end that.
The new monopoly on conversions is likely to have a profound affect on Diaspora Jewry and discourage aliya.
It is part of a larger problem that threatens Israel-Diaspora relations. Religious extremists are taking greater and greater control of Israeli life. They are disproportionately getting public funding, while growing numbers are not working, not paying taxes and not serving in the army.
THIS CONVERSION bill is the latest example of an anti-democratic religious establishment run amok thanks to politicians who are willing to buy their votes at any cost.
Earlier this week police arrested Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, for carrying a Torah near the Western Wall, a practice forbidden by a High Court ruling and laws passed for the haredim who control the area. Worshipers are segregated by gender, and women are forbidden to read from the Torah or wear tallit or tefillin near the Kotel.
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman late last year said he would like to see Halacha, Torah law, replace the state’s legal system. He dropped the idea in the face of extensive criticism. Even if he was just thinking out loud, as justice minister that sent a disturbing message to 90 percent of American Jewry who are not Orthodox – Israel is not for you.
Israel’s Orthodox establishment has been pushing for laws that forbid the display of hametz in stores and restaurants during Pessah.
In many communities bus companies are pressured to segregate passengers by gender. Where is the Israeli Rosa Parks? In the city of Emmanuel, Ashkenazi parents went to jail rather than let their daughters attend an all-girls schools with Sephardi girls after the High Court ruled against racial segregation. The parents insisted they weren’t racists, just protecting their right to choose where to send their children to school.
Jewish success in America owes much to the traditions of religious tolerance and constitutional separation of church and state – two qualities sadly missing in the world’s only Jewish state.
With a religious establishment that appears bent on turning Israel into an anti-democratic theocracy and at a time when much has been written about the disaffection of many younger American Jews toward Israel, this is guaranteed to accelerate that exodus.
If it is enacted, the new conversion law could create a severe – and unnecessary – crisis in relations between Israel and American Jewry that would undermine Israel’s support on Capitol Hill by discouraging political activism among the huge majority of American Jews who do not identify as Orthodox. What motivation would they have to lobby or provide financial support for an Israel that tells them they’re not really Jewish?
Admirers say Netanyahu is at heart a political pragmatist. Now is the time for him to demonstrate that pragmatism by blocking the conversion bill and putting an end to the religious blackmail that threatens the Israel most American Jews care so deeply about.