American Jews anxious about Israeli conversion bill

Every couple of years, the great “Who is a Jew?” debate arises in a slightly new form. And this is one of those years.

Non-Jews may not realize the difficulty that Jews often have defining who is a Jew — especially when it comes to the tricky questions of conversion.

Each of the main Jewish movements in the U.S. — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist — have their own standards and processes for conversion. In general, the movements leave each other alone (even if everyone knows that the Orthodox world may not recognize those converted by the Reform and Conservative movements as Jews).

Things get really tricky when it comes to Israel.

Israeli politicians promote policies and laws that they consider to be in the best interests of Israel — but which are often seen by diaspora Jews, including non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., as directly affecting them.

Right now, Israel is very concerned about the growing numbers of Israeli citizens from Russia who are not Jewish. For one thing, some of these non-Jewish Russian-Israelis are bound to marry Jewish Israelis, raising a litany of intermarriage questions and concerns that American Jews have been dealing with for decades.

Many Israelis would like to see many of these Russian Israelis convert to Judaism.

A piece of legislation, known as the Rotem bill, was supposed to address this by allowing a decentralized system of rabbis to oversee conversions. But — there’s always a but — it would also allow Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to have final say on conversions.

In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate — the religious establishment — is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews. And ultra-Orthodox Jews, as you might imagine, prefer ultra-Orthodox standards for conversion.

The concern among American Jews who are not Orthodox is that Israel’s Chief Rabbinate could be given the power to not recognize conversions performed in the U.S.

It is a mostly symbolic issue, because there aren’t many Reform Jewish converts in the U.S. looking to move to Israel. But symbolism is powerful, especially when many non-Orthodox Jews support and defend Israel all their lives.

So there.

It seems that the bill will not be voted on just yet. But the debate continues.

As the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt writes:

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The larger issue — squaring the circle of maintaining standards of Orthodox religious law in Israel without further alienating the majority of world Jewry — is not going away. And neither is the ill will created among the majority of Jews in this country by the attempt to pass the bill, however well intended it may have been.

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Elsewhere in the Jewish Week, Thomas Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says: “Eventually, these things begin to wear out the enthusiasm of American Jews for the Jewish state.”

Our own Nita Lowey weighs in: “One of my real concerns is that this is not a new issue. We’ve raised objections to this kind of proposal for as far back as I can remember, because it affects the character of Israel and it affects Jews around the world.”

This is serious stuff for Israel/American Jewish relations.

As a convert to Judaism writes on JewishJournal.com:

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Our leaders in Israel need to understand that this growing ultra-Orthodox monopoly, which would only be enhanced by the Rotem bill in whatever form that it might take, or any similar legislation that resurrects the “who is a Jew?” issue, has the potential to irreparably damage the strong ties between Israel and her Diaspora supporters and to create a sectarian rift between Orthodoxy and the 85 percent of world Jewry who do not identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

The increasing power and influence of ultra-Orthodox extremists is providing regular fodder for critics of Israel and institutions like J Street to suggest that Israel lacks a commitment to pluralistic forms of Judaism and the democratic principles that have allowed it to develop into the strongest nation in the Middle East and one of the most durable economies in the world.  It is particularly poisonous to young Jews in the Diaspora who lack the historic perspective to continue to rationalize the current state of affairs.

The negative impact the Rotem bill could have on Israel and the Jewish people cannot be underestimated.  This is not an issue about which Jews outside of Israel will complain for a few days and then simply forget — it could permanently damage Israel’s relationship with world Jewry.

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.