It’s hard not to be cynical about the latest conversion controversy in Jerusalem that threatens to further divide an already fragmented Jewish People for no reason but one: internal Israeli politics.
If the Knesset continues to move ahead, as indicated this week, and pass legislation giving the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on conversions in Israel, the great majority of American Jews — as well as their establishment charitable organizations, most notably the leadership and supporters of Jewish federations — will consider themselves second-class citizens officially in the eyes of the Jewish State. As a result, their support could well diminish.
Make no mistake, the non-Orthodox American Jewish leadership is angry, and feeling betrayed, after being assured they would be consulted and their concerns addressed before action was taken on this Knesset bill. Jerry Silverman, the professional head of the Jewish Federations of North America, wrote an unusually blunt and irate letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu this week, expressing “deep shock” and urging him to block the bill sponsored by David Rotem, a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party.
In addition, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky expressed deep disappointment in Rotem’s legislation. “We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” he said in a statement that noted “the proposed bill was supposed to have been discussed in detail with world Jewry.”
Sharanksy implied in the statement that diaspora support could be adversely affected should the bill pass.
Rotem, Lieberman’s point man in the Knesset on the conversion bill, insists his motive is to pave the way to conversion for more of the approximately 350,000 Russian immigrants living in Israel, speaking Hebrew, integrated into the society and serving in the army, but who are not themselves Jewish. Just about everyone recognizes the severity and immediacy of the problem.
But while Rotem’s bill would give city rabbis in Israel the authority to conduct conversions, presumably widening the circle and making the ritual more available, the final authority would be the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The Knesset legislation would codify and further solidify the religious monopoly that upsets most diaspora Jews, about 85 percent of whom are not Orthodox.
As for an immediate way out of the current impasse, Rabbi Seth Farber, whose organization, ITIM, helps people navigate the Israeli religious bureaucracy,said it simply requires the Chief Rabbinate to authorize city rabbis to perform conversions, as was done in the past. That should satisfy Rotem and Yisrael Beiteinu as well as calm diaspora Jews since it would widen the pool for conversion rabbis yet not require or effect Knesset legislation.
But that may be far too logical and peaceable a solution for the Israeli political system to handle.