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Tuesday May 04, 2010
Pulling the wool over our eyes
Posted by Rabbi Andrew Sacks
MK David Rotem has just returned from a trip to North America where he was accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Their mission was simple - or so they thought.
Rotem has drafted legislation ostensibly intended to ease the conversion process here in Israel. The target population is the approximately 340,000 citizens, mainly from the Former Soviet Union, who came to Israel under the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law). He asked for support of his bill.
The Law of Return allows for those with a single Jewish grandparent, along with immediate family, to claim citizenship. Many of these people consider themselves Jewish, and some would have definitely appreciated a process allowing them to officially convert to Judaism. Without an official conversion they still live as Jews. They study with Jews. They are members of the various youth movements. They faithfully serve in the army.
They are, however, unable to marry (there is no civil marriage in Israel - do not be deceived by the recent so-called civil marriage bill, also authored by Rotem) and they are buried outside of the main Jewish cemeteries.
There was a time when many would have wished to convert. But the process, through the official Chief Rabbinate, has become so demeaning and humiliating that few are still interested.
Rotem claims that his bill would reopen the doors to conversion by allowing local rabbis (of course all Orthodox) to convene conversion courts. What he fails to mention is that most of those 340,000 have been so turned off that it is unlikely that they will even apply. And, even if they do, the local Beit Din may have its converts recognized only with the approval of the Chief Rabbi (good luck!).
Rotem also seeks to "grant authority" over conversion to the country's Chief Rabbinate. The law does not do so today. In effect, he wants to grant the Rabbinate much broader powers.
He does not mention the non-Orthodox options, thus casting those movements aside.
A statement was issued jointly by the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements:
The law, as it is currently worded, would likely lead the Interior Ministry (headed by the zealously Orthodox Shas party) to refuse recognition of Masorti/Conservative and Reform conversions. This would mark a severe change in the current situation and a slap in the face to those who seek to convert yet understand that there are "seventy (i.e. many) faces to the Torah" and all "are the words of the living God."
- MK Rotem believes his proposed legislation would rapidly open the door to a faster conversion process. We respectfully disagree. Not only would this legislation fail to achieve his forecasted result, the collateral damage to the 85% of world Jewry who are not Orthodox (and perhaps others who are) would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people..."
I can already hear the talkbackers saying, "Good. The Conservative and Reform have destroyed American Jewry, we don't need them in Israel." But let us be reminded (beside the stupidity of this notion) that Israel is a democracy and not a theocracy to be run by mullahs masquerading as rabbis. In all true democracies the rights of minorities must be protected.
Beyond all of this, the bill seems to allow for people who enter Israel and then convert to still be ineligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. Thus converts may be treated as second class Jews.
The feelings of disconnect of much of Diaspora Jewry toward Israel are growing stronger. We need to narrow this gap rather than fan the fires of divisiveness as this law surely will.
The debate over "who is a Jew" has slowly ebbed as the Israeli courts have recognized the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry. Now is not the time to move backward.
MK Rotem met with many of the North American Jewish community leaders in an attempt to convince them that his proposed legislation would be good for all and harmful to none.
He failed to gain their support not because Diaspora Jewry disagrees with the aim of opening the doors wider to those who wish to become halachically Jewish. He failed because his arguments in support of his bill were specious and lacking in merit.
Ah, but who are these leaders who sit in the comfort that is America and dictate Israeli policy, you might ask?
They are the very people who back the pro-Israel lobbies, give money, send many of their children to Israel and educate future generations of Jews with the understanding that Israel is central to Judaism. They are our partners.
A tip of the hat (my Kippah remains in place) to those who patiently and respectfully listened to MK Rotem but did not allow the wool to be pulled over their eyes.