By Daniel Chejfec
Over the last few days the email boxes have been hot with multiple emails referring to the Rotem Conversion bill that passed first reading in the Knesset and how such a bill will affect Israel-Diaspora relations. The issue is indeed important enough that I feel the need to speak up.
What are the issues? YES, ISSUES and not issue, because I believe that in the bill as well as in the process and in the reaction there are several things to consider. Let's start from Bereshit (In the Beginning). A few years ago, the so-called "Who is a Jew" issue threatened to divide the Jewish people to the point that a number of authors began asking the question "One people or two?". The main point of contempt in that case was the inability of Orthodox rabbis to accept the concept of Patrilineal descent adopted by the Reform movement as well as serious points of disagreement regarding conversion standards issues both, in Israel as well as the Diaspora. At the time, the crisis was averted with a compromise that created Municipal Rabbinical Courts to judge the seriousness of the prospective converts. These courts had significant representation of Orthodox Religious Zionists, who are generally perceived not as part of the "Haredi" but somehow aligned with them. Their inclusion, however, guaranteed a degree of flexibility and fairness to the process. Because of this precedent of crisis in the Israel-Diaspora relations, it was agreed (informally) that any law passed in Israel that could affect the entire Jewish people was going to be consulted with the Diaspora. Why? because one very key potential problem with not being recognized as a Jew is that you cannot take advantage of the "Law of Return", one of the four Fundamental Laws of the State of Israel that grants automatic citizenship to any Jew who makes Aliyah.
The compromise reached then was a typical "Jewish consensus", that is something nobody was happy about but everybody could live with. And for several years, it worked. In the last elections, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, a right wing political party that caters mostly to Russian immigrants, promised his constituency that he was going to ease the conversion process to allow the approximately 350,000 "non-Halachic Jews" who immigrated from the FSU to regularize their situation. This is necessary because of the virtual monopoly the Rabbinate holds over marriage registrations and Jewish burials. If you want to get married in Israel or you want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, you need the Chief Rabbinate recognition that you are a Jew...He therefore instructed his Knesset delegation, in particular MK Rotem, to work on a bill to that effect. The original bill was brought up to committee in March.
In order to prevent a flare up like the prior "Who is a Jew" crisis, P.M. Netanyahu promised American Jewry, specifically the Religious movements and the Jewish Federations of North America, that the bill was not going to be brought to vote without consultation with the Diaspora because of the potential to re ignite the conflict. He then recruited Nathan Sharansky, a well respected Israeli figure in America, Russian immigrant himself, and Chairman of the Jewish Agency, to help as a representative in the negotiation process. So far it looks like a typical political negotiation between Jews.
It so happened that Rotem, in an effort to secure support from the religious parties, made a "small change" in the law before bringing up for First reading at the Knesset - he included the phrase that "Converts must accept the yoke of Halachah" which means essentially that converts will be judged by their observance even after the actual conversion. In addition, the Municipal Rabbis are empowered to perform the conversions themselves, rending the Rabbinical tribunals established in the prior compromise all but irrelevant and concentrating the power over conversion in the hands of the Ultra Orthodox Rabbinate.
Those are the facts. Now what are the problems?
First, Rotem violated an agreement made to prevent a schism with the Diaspora
Second, liberal streams of Judaism are completely disempowered turning back the clock to before the last agreement
Third, PM Netanyahu who made a promised to the leaders of the Jewish Agency and the Diaspora chose to ignore the whole conflict by stating "that the bill will not pass anyway" and avoiding getting involved
Fourth, the Halachic requirement opens the door for annulling conversion later on if the converts are not observant enough in the eyes of the Rabbinate
Fifth, the changes marginalized the Orthodox Zionists who were serving as a bridge between the mostly secular Israelis and the Haredi
Sixth, the situation allowed the liberal streams of Judaism to blame the Rabbinate for their inability to gain support among Israelis instead of turning inward for a serious critical view at their own shortcomings. The Conservative and Reform movements in Israel are failing to gain support among Israelis because they have not accepted the reality of a secular Israeli society.
Seventh, some of the leaders of the Conservative and Reform Movements as well as the JFNA chose to use the opportunity as a banner to "rally the troops" in a frontal attacks "against the Israeli establishment and the Rabbinate" without really engaging in a dialog to seek a compromise, but just decrying what the other side is doing.
Eight, the whole situation highlighted the issues of the need for civil marriage and burial and exacerbated the argument of what makes Israel a Jewish State.
I recently finished reading "The Jewish Wars" by Josephus Flavius from cover to cover. The first Century Jewish historian recorded among other issues, the internal conflicts among those who opposed the Romans and how those disagreements led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, an event that coincidentally we are about to commemorate on Tisha B'Av. As a people we have survived the long years of statelessness by accepting our internal differences and embracing them. Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Hassidim and Misnagdim, Zionists and anti-Zionist, etc. We saw our communities as true "Universities" in the original sense..."Unity in Diversity" (Unitas et Diversitas).
Since 1967, Israeli society became polarized by opinion on what was going to lead to Peace, holding on to the territories or relinquishing them? This polarization reached an extreme in 1995 when then PM Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jew who disagreed with him. Since then, Israelis have been slowly but surely rebuilding their political center, sometimes with the most unlikely players and not without controversy. The Rotem bill as presented is also denying this process, trying to revive the polarized view of those days.
But most troublesome for me is the cavalier attitude of ignoring promises made to the Jewish leaders of the Diaspora as if the Diaspora doesn't have stake in law defining what it means to be a Jew.
In addition, even the concept of rigidly defining the standards grates against my instincts as a Jew, because the more rigidly we define the boundaries, the less able we will be as a people to deal with new realities.
I'm choosing to quote the reaction of Kurt Rothschild, an Orthodox Jew:
"I am one of the Orthodox members of the Unity Committee of the Jewish Agency where all streams are represented. Our Committee, I included, back the Conversion Institute of Rabbi Ish Shalom and the Beth Din of Rabbi Druckman that has in fact passed many conversions.
I and the other Orthodox members of the Committee do not support the proposed bill in its present form. We consider it harmful and not helpful to promoting the genuine effort to bring immigrants desirous of conversion into the ranks of halacha recognized Judaism.
I might mention that nullifying retroactively genuine conversion is assuredly not practiced by the Chief Rabbinate and is not in accordance with the overwhelming Orthodox Rabbinic ruling.
I am in full agreement with the statements of Minister Yuli Edelstein, who himself is an Orthodox Jew, and trust that wiser counsels will prevail to replace the proposed legislation to language which will unify rather than divide our World Jewish community"
And I can only ad..."AMEN"