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Opposition to Conversion Bill Shows Growing Discontent of American Jews with Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2010

In July, an Israeli parliamentary committee advanced a bill that would give the chief rabbinate, the religious authority in Israel run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, the power to decide which conversions are accepted, overturning an Israeli Supreme Court decision that ensures eligibility for Israeli citizenship for those converted by rabbis from all branches of Judaism.  
The Washington Post (July 13, 2010) reports that, “Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, which have been battling for years for more rights in Israel, saw the committee vote as a threat to their efforts to strengthen their legitimacy in Israel. The chief rabbinate already holds a monopoly on such rituals as marriage and divorce.”  
“It sets us back 20 years in terms of the advances that were made,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The practical implication of this bill is one that we are very, very concerned and angry about. The bill delegitimizes most of North American Jewry.” Beyond this, he said, it brings back the question of “who has the authority to determine anyone’s Jewish identity.”  
Discussing this legislation, Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet Magazine, which covers Jewish life and culture, notes that, “If passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births, marriages and deaths — and, through them, the fundamental questions of Jewish identity — in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or Heredi, rabbis. The problem is not simply that some of these rabbinical functionaries, who are paid by the state and courted by politicians, are demonstrably corrupt. Rather, it is that the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government’s definition of Judaism, for all Jews.” (The International Herald Tribune, July 17, 2010).  
Newhouse points out that, “... lest one imagine that this is just another battle between the more progressive Reform and Conservative denominations and the more observant Orthodox, it must be noted that the criteria used by the rabbinate are driven by internal Heredi politics, not observance. ... At one point the number of American rabbis who were officially authorized by the Israeli rabbinate to perform conversions was down to a few dozen. Even if you are Orthodox — and especially if you are Modern Orthodox — your rabbi probably doesn’t make the cut. ... The stringent approach to Jewish law that the Israeli rabbinate promotes bears little connection to the historical experience and religious practice of the majority of Jewish people over the past two millenniums. ... It is well outside the consensus established by Hillel — arguably the greatest rabbi in all of rabbinic Judaism and who, as Joseph Telushkin argues in a forthcoming book, was willing to convert a pagan on the spot, simply because he’d asked. ... If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why ... Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish Diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.”  
A Jewish U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is circulating a letter asking fellow Jewish lawmakers to join him in condemning the controversial Israeli measure. Among those signing are Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). The Jewish Federations of North America said it supports the Senate letter. “We welcome any expression of commitment from influential Jews to maintain the unity of the Jewish people and the dangers posed by this divisive legislation,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy.  
As a result of the opposition to this legislation in the U.S., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would oppose the controversial bill, saying that it would “tear apart the Jewish people.” The issue is likely to come up again in January. David Horovitz, the editor of The Jerusalem Post, declares that, “What we are facing is an explosive global crisis over Jewish identity — a huge, snowballing disaster that is ripping Israeli-Diaspora relations.”  
Rabbi Donald Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, declares that, “There is increasing discontent among American Jews with Israel.” •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.