Editorial: Solving the conversion crisis

A compromise has been reached over "Who is a Jew."

Religious extremism and narrow parochialism have, for now, once again gotten the better of reason.
It seemed that a temporary compromise had been reached to avert the snowballing crisis between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel over “Who is a Jew.” Late Thursday night, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement outlining the compromise, which was similar to ideas expressed in these columns and based squarely on reason: The two sides would agree to a sixmonth moratorium on all legal and legislative action aimed at changing the religious status quo regarding conversions to Judaism – namely the Reform and Conservative movements’ petition to the High Court and Israel Beiteinu’s conversion bill.
In the interim, a special committee would be created, headed by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, which would bring together representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements with representatives of the Israeli government. Through dialogue, the two sides would hammer out their differences.
But Shas and United Torah Judaism, unwilling to sit with non-Orthodox Jews, have rejected the proposal and vowed to continue to back the conversion bill that would anchor in law the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate’s de facto control over conversions, the delegitimacy of non-Orthodox conversions, and the very Jewishness of all non-Orthodox converts.
Meanwhile, Israel Beiteinu’s MK David Rotem, the mastermind behind the bill, is being non-committal.
He apparently is none too anxious to pit himself against the two haredi political parties, which enjoy a steadily growing constituency boosted by one of the highest fertility rates in the world. Besides, the Knesset is on summer recess until October and no bills will be passed until then anyway.
The intransigence of Shas and UTJ is not particularly surprising. UTJ’s Uri Maklev sees the alienation of non-Orthodox Jewry that was caused by the bill as proof of its worthiness. But even moderate religious Zionist groups have come out in favor of Rotem’s legislation. Traditional-minded legislators from Likud or even Kadima would support it as well.
WIDE SUPPORT for Orthodoxy’s de facto monopoly over religion in Israel goes back to the establishment of the state. Of all the secular Jewish movements that grew out of the Haskala, Zionism was the most in need of cooperation with tradition.
Although Zionism rebelled against old parochial modes of Jewish existence in its rejection of the exile, its push to reestablish Jewish sovereignty and its goal of creating a “new Jew,” the pioneering Zionists nevertheless needed tradition to explain the Jewish people’s special connection to the Land of Israel, to co-opt the idea of chosenness, and to promote social cohesion.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, understood the centrality of tradition to Zionism and made a pact with the Orthodox establishment, giving it control over strictly religious matters such as marriage and divorce, building synagogues and ritual baths, and burials. Secular Zionists, who were responsible for the creation of the state, would control everything else.
Reform and Conservative Judaism, foreign to the vast majority of eastern European immigrants who made up the Zionist leadership, was never an option. The waves of immigration from Muslim countries in the 1950s and 1960s made it even less so.
But while Ben-Gurion recognized the importance of tradition, he was also careful not to allow the Orthodox establishment to force on the fledgling Jewish nation an overly narrow, exclusionary definition of Jewishness that would alienate Diaspora Jewry. In 1958, for instance, he asked dozens of scholars and thinkers in Israel and in the Diaspora for their opinion on the relationship between religion and nationhood.
To this day the question of “who is a Jew?” has remained open. If it is to be resolved, it must be through dialogue and compromise, not through coercion or unilateral acts.