The cost of politics-as-usual to Am Yisrael

Knesset factions need to think of the big picture.

Natan Sharansky 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Natan Sharansky 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Again we approach the festival of Shavuot, when we read the Book of Ruth. Again we’ll read the stirring lines of Ruth, great-grandmother of King David: “From wherever thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest I will die and there will I be buried.”
And again, just as for the last 15 years, when I’ll read these words, I’ll think about those among us today who have undertaken Ruth’s oath.
I am speaking about some 350,000 citizens (5 percent of the country’s population) who came here primarily from the former Soviet Union under the Law of Return but who are not halachically Jewish. Tens of thousands of them are interested in converting to Judaism. Yet, in the past year, less than 2,000 managed to complete their conversions through the existing centralized official channels.
They are full citizens, most of Jewish ancestry, often members of Jewish families, already living here productively, bravely serving in our military and committed to fully joining the Jewish people. Yet, they not only face continued alienation and exclusion as a result of bureaucratic difficulties in the conversion process, but year after year produce new generations, including 90,000 children younger than 18, who will remain in limbo.
IN RECENT months the Knesset has once again attempted to tackle the thorny issue of their conversion. And, once again, we are on the verge of squandering an opportunity.
Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman David Rotem, of Israel Beiteinu, recently presented a proposal to decentralize the conversion process. It is a big step in the right direction. But as the issue of conversion and its fundamental underlying question of “Who is a Jew?” is so sensitive, Rotem’s sensible reform is running into the gridlock of religious and coalition politics.
It is my strong belief that this is one time politics must be put aside for the sake of the future of the Jewish people.
Absorbing and welcoming this population into the Jewish world requires our strongest minds, clearest vision and softest hearts. If we are successful, we will strengthen and unify our Jewish community. Unfortunately, the various political attempts to “improve” the Rotem proposal with amendments threaten to derail the entire process and to drive a wedge between Israel and much of Diaspora Jewry.
Rotem’s straightforward legislation would grant local municipal rabbis authority to establish courts for conversion made up of current and former local municipal rabbis. These rabbis have already been approved for their current positions by the Chief Rabbinate. The formation of a large number of new authorized conversion courts would help break the existing conversion logjam. Moreover, local rabbis who know their constituents would be dealing with candidates on a personal grassroots level, adding greater accountability and sensitivity.
The legislation also contains a provision protecting those who converted in the past from the nightmare of arbitrary retroactive annulment of their conversions by other rabbinic courts, as has happened in those conversions performed under the existing official conversion courts directed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. The legislation would give newly converted Jews official status that can not be arbitrarily stripped without due process.
The proposal was originally endorsed by Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. With Shas on board, it appeared the proposal had a good chance to be adopted as law.
But in spite of the “kashrut certification” of the proposal by Rabbis Amar and Yosef, Shas backed away from the original bill, apparently due to political considerations. Instead, Shas joined with the haredi United Torah Judaism to amend the bill in ways that not only fail to decentralize the conversion bureaucracy, but instead concentrate additional power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate.
One amendment would give the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over the composition of the new conversion courts, effectively shutting out non-haredi Orthodox rabbis, and sole authority over the legitimacy of conversions.
Another amendment would deny automatic citizenship to those who convert while in Israel if they were not previously eligible under the Law of Return, and would be applied retroactively, stripping countless converts of their existing citizenship. Though aimed at weeding out foreign workers who might claim citizenship by converting, the sweeping amendment would effectively create two tiers of Jews, making a distinction between citizenship rights of Jews by birth and Jews by choice.
THESE AMENDMENTS have alarmed American Jewish leaders who fear it would open the door to more wide-ranging changes in the definition of Jewish identity and aliya eligibility. The Jewish Federations of North America, representing 157 federations, took the rare step of sending a unified letter of protest to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
These amendments would nullify the decentralization gains of the original proposal, grant unprecedented powers to the Chief Rabbinate, and gratuitously risk alienating all non-Orthodox streams of Judaism from the Jewish state.
That would be tragic. Jews all over the world have a stake in decisions regarding Jewish identity and Israeli citizenship. And the State of Israel has a stake in the strength of Jewish identity and identification with Israel by Jews the world over. Opening a fundamental rift between our communities over these issues would create a self-inflicted wound, not only unnecessary, but with grave long-term consequences for the unity of the Jewish people.
With the original proposal, we have an opportunity to improve the conversion status quo. With the amended version, we risk undoing whatever unity of purpose currently exists in the conversion system, and undermining the existing symbiotic relationship between our varied Jewish communities. As chairman of the Jewish Agency, I strongly support the original Rotem proposal – and strongly oppose the onerous proposed amendments.
As a Knesset veteran, I am quite sensitive to the needs of various factions to maneuver and position themselves according to political calculations. I understand that a party such as Shas shares certain political interests with other haredi factions. But those interests should be dwarfed by the interests shared with the rest of Am Yisrael.
Shas’s constituency is made up of Sephardi Jews. Their rabbis have a historical tradition of tolerance and searching for darchei shalom, contributing greatly to maintaining the unity of our people through the centuries, both in the Diaspora and in the modern State of Israel. We forget, but only 15 years ago the issue of burial of Jewish and halachically non-Jewish family members in the same cemetery was tearing apart our society. It was Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron who overcame various objections of his colleagues and found a wise and creative halachic solution. The moment it was implemented, the political and halachic objections dissipated.
There comes a time for Knesset factions to think of the big picture, and not get bogged down by parochial politics. There comes a time to consider long-term implications of our decisions, and avoid the temptation of fleeting political posturing. There comes a time for political bravery, not opportunism. There comes a time to act in the spirit of Ruth. This is that time.
Some 350,000 souls and the unity of Am Yisrael hang in the balance. Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.
The writer is chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.