A growing crisis between American Jews and the Israeli government over a proposed law on religious conversion was averted — or at least delayed — this week, with both sides agreeing to six months of negotiation. But the depth of U.S. anger and the Byzantine complexity of Israeli politics suggest a solution is a long...
JERUSALEM — A growing crisis between American Jews and the Israeli government over a proposed law on religious conversion was averted — or at least delayed — this week, with both sides agreeing to six months of negotiation. But the depth of U.S. anger and the Byzantine complexity of Israeli politics suggest a solution is a long way off.
Late Thursday, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, would lead a committee of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements and that no conversion law would be submitted before January. Litigation in the Israeli Supreme Court on the same topic brought by the Reform and Conservative movements would be suspended for the same period.
The idea of delay came from Netanyahu, who said the proposed law, which had passed a committee of Parliament, “could tear apart the Jewish people.” He had received tens of thousands of angry e-mails from American Jews who had been urged to contact him by their rabbis.
Conversions are a highly sensitive issue for the three main denominations among the world’s 13 million Jews: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. The more liberal Conservative and Reform denominations that make up the majority of American Jews, but which have little political clout inside Israel, feared the bill could undermine their legitimacy and connection to the Jewish state.
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The bill that so angered U.S. Jewish leaders was aimed at making conversion easier for the 300,000 Israelis who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Those Israelis are not, by Orthodox rabbinical law, considered Jewish because they come from mixed parentage. The law would have tried to make conversion easier by granting conversion powers to local rabbis, who are considered closer to their communities.
But after objections from the ultra-Orthodox, the bill formally placed authority for conversion in the hands of the chief rabbinate and declared Orthodox Jewish law to be the basis of conversion, making Americans fear their more lenient conversion processes would be invalidated.
David Rotem, the lawmaker behind the conversion bill, said such views were based on a misreading of it.
“They need to check the facts before they speak,” he said of Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders. “They are acting like absolute idiots.”
The question of “who is a Jew?” is as old as the state of Israel. The more liberal forms of Jewish practice advocated by the Reform and Conservative movements have never taken root in Israel. Israel has left liturgy in the hands of the Orthodox, with most Israeli Jews leading almost completely secular lives, seeking out rabbis only at birth, marriage and death.
The idea is that helping to build the Jewish state is their central means of expressing their ethnic identity. By contrast, Jews abroad seek one another out in synagogues and have come up with ways to integrate spirituality with identity, forging rituals that respect tradition while adjusting to careers and life in a non-Jewish world.
But several developments in recent years have altered that. First, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants not considered Jewish has created an acute need in the eyes of Israeli leaders to find a way to integrate them in keeping with rabbinic tradition. Otherwise, they will not be able to marry, divorce or be buried in Israel within Jewish tradition, and their children will feel alienated. Rotem calls them “a ticking bomb.”
Second, the chief rabbinate, which for decades was in the hands of Orthodox Zionist parties, is largely controlled by the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox, who are more liturgically rigid and less concerned with building Israel, integrating Russian speakers or keeping American Jews on board.
Finally, American Jews, who are mostly politically liberal — some 80 percent voted for Obama — have felt their attachment to Israel strained during its military operations in Lebanon and Gaza and the recent attack on a Turkish flotilla seeking to break Israel’s Gaza blockade. And since the conversion bill is being sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu, the nationalist and mostly right-wing party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, conditions were especially ripe for mistrust.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this