The author of a proposed Israeli conversion bill dismissed this week criticism of the legislation by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders here and said he is determined to see it enacted.
"I will have to think how to continue because the most important thing for me is how to solve the problem of the half-million new immigrants from Russia" who wish to convert to Judaism, Israeli Knesset member David Rotem told The Jewish Week Monday.
He denied promising to withdraw the bill if he failed to win the support of Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative leaders here. He met with them for three days of talks here last week, after which the leaders issued a statement saying its adoption "would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people."
"The bill threatens to alter the Law of Return and consolidate conversion power into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel," the statement said. "Both of these results could have devastating effects on the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry and thus on the broader unity of the Jewish people. Such concentration of power in favor of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry effectively negates the roles of the non-Orthodox movements both within Israel and abroad, sending the message that only the Orthodox have a place within our Homeland."
The bill contains a provision that would bar converts to Judaism from gaining automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return if they had entered the country before their conversion. It also for the first time gives the Chief Rabbinate responsibility — but not a veto power — over conversions. Rotem said the word responsibility is, in effect, meaningless, but the non-Orthodox insisted that it gave the Chief Rabbinate a role in conversions that it does not now have.
Rotem also insisted that his bill "has nothing to do with American conversions. I think they are fighting a war for the wrong purpose."
"I don't need their support," he insisted. "I don't like it when people tell me that their support for the State of Israel hangs on this. This is what I was told. ... I don't like those kind of threats."
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, refuted that allegation, saying in an e-mail message: "We support Israel unequivocally in her ongoing struggles to maintain a safe and secure nation against external enemies. We oppose the passage of any law that empowers a religious minority at the expense of the vast majority of Jews in the diaspora and that utterly disregards their identity, values and beliefs."
In their joint statement, the movements called upon Rotem, his political party, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to withdraw the bill and craft legislation to deal with the problem of the Russian immigrants "without compromising either the core democratic values of the state or the Law of Return."
Rotem said he would welcome suggestions from the non-Orthodox movements on how to change his bill to make it palatable to them. He said he heard no such suggestions during his meetings here last week.
"No, they didn't suggest anything to me; they did not. They didn't come and say to me, 'Listen, if you will correct this or correct this, we will be able..."
Would he have been receptive to their suggestions?
"I would have to see them first to tell you if I could accept them or not. I came to speak to them and not for a yes or no, [but] that's what came out."
But Rabbi Yael Ridberg of the Reconstructionist movement said that in his discussions with them Rotem "made it very clear that he did not come to negotiate with us."
"He came to listen and to hear our concerns," she said. "We had a frank and open conversation with him. The conversation was more of an opportunity to share our concerns about this legislation. The notion of linking conversions to the Chief Rabbinate is of fundamental concern and it is a problem that is not easily addressed."
Rabbi Steven Wernick of the Conservative movement pointed out that this was Rotem's first chance to meet with non-Orthodox Jewish leaders here and "we wanted to give him an education about who we are. This was a chance to share ideas and perspectives, and he is going to have to decide how much influence this will have on him as he moves forward with this bill."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Reform movement said the non-Orthodox leaders "didn't perceive this as a negotiating session. He didn't present it in those terms. ... We were not there to strike a deal. We were there to share with him the deep concerns felt in our communities about any legislation that was passed in this area that impacted us and increased the standing and power of the Orthodox monopoly. That was our basic message. We are not lawmakers and didn't approach the meeting that way."
Rabbi Wernick added that if Rotem "believes we have something to add that is of value, we would be happy to talk to him."