REFORM JEWISH MOVEMENT CALLS ON KNESSET TO REJECT CONVERSION LEGISLATION

The Union For Reform Judaism

For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice the same as Jews-by-birth. We are taught “as soon as a convert emerges from the mikvah (ritual bath) she or he is Jewish for all purposes.” (Talmud, Yevamot 47b)

For 62 years, since its founding, the State of Israel, through the Law of Return, has welcomed Jews from around the world as citizens in the world’s only Jewish state.

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Today, legislation before the Knesset – a bill sponsored by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beitenu that addresses both the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and matters of conversion – threatens both of those sacred principles.

This legislation will certainly reopen one of the most divisive battles in the Jewish community. The proposed legislation will lead to a situation in which Jews-by-choice would be treated differently and denied recognition as Jews under the Law of Return, in direct contradiction of Israeli Supreme Court rulings. Additionally, it may lead to the delegitimization of all non-orthodox conversions performed outside of the State of Israel.

Our concern is neither partisan nor denominational, but emanates from true love of Medinat Yisrael and Klal Yisrael (the State and people of Israel). With the unity of the Jewish people foremost in our thoughts and prayers, we urge the government and the Knesset to affirm core principles of that unity when enacting any legislation. We call upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to withstand the pressures of a small segment of the political spectrum and to do what is best for all Jewish people everywhere.

The Reform Movement calls upon the State of Israel to treat all religious streams of Judaism fairly and equally, a cause that is far from realization. We call upon the Knesset to reject this partisan attack on the majority of American Jews. Finally, we call upon the Israeli people to join with us in an effort to help Israel live up to its promise as a Jewish and democratic State.

Conversion in Israel

Background

Conversion in Israel is currently regulated by government-administered national and district courts, supervised by orthodox rabbis. (For more background information about conversion in Israel, see our issue papers in the Learn More section) In recent years there has been a total breakdown of the system with local ultra-Orthodox rabbis refusing to recognize the state authority, annulling hundreds of conversions, and refusing to perform marriages for some converts, rejecting the authority of the courts that approved the conversions. The issue of conversion is complicated by the fact that one may be Jewish in the eyes of the state of Israel for purposes of citizenship, equal-rights and the Law of Return, but not so in the eyes of the religious civil authority which regulates issues such as marriage, divorce and burial. Currently the only conversions performed in Israel that are recognized by religious and state authorities are Orthodox conversions. The Israeli Religious Action Center has won the rights of recognition from the state, in multiple Supreme Court decisions, for converts who either converted abroad in non-Orthodox conversions, or converts who studied in Israel for non-Orthodox conversions and left Israel for the official conversion ceremony. IRAC currently has a Supreme Court case pending which would grant recognition to reform and conservative conversions performed in Israel.

Current Legislation

A March 2010 bill proposed in the Knesset by MK David Rotem, a member of the right-wing Russian party Yisrael Beiteinu, looks to resolve the collapse in the conversion process by granting local Rabbinic authorities the right to perform conversions. This bill would increase the number of courts that have conversion power and also resolve the divide between local and state rabbis. However, this legislation also includes an amendment which would make it so converts who have previously been to Israel, or reside in Israel, are excluded from the Law of Return, which gives the right of citizenship to all Jews. Orthodox political leaders cite the possibility of non-Jews using conversion as a means to gain citizenship in Israel. In essence this law has the potential to eliminate the rights of Reform and Conservative converts, who have previously been to Israel even on short organized community or synagogue trips, from gaining citizenship. This legislation labels converts, including Orthodox converts, as second-class citizens who have to go through the naturalization process even though they are Jews. The proposed law would also make IRAC’s current Supreme Court case, asking for recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, a mute point.

IRAC and Progressive Judaism’s Response

IRAC’s position, representing millions of non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora (including Reform and Conservative), is firmly in opposition to this legislation. In addition to eliminating the advances for equal conversion rights IRAC has already won in the Supreme Court, this legislation threatens the rights of non-Orthodox Jews everywhere, some of whom would not be considered Jews in the eyes of the Israeli rabbinic authority. This legislation has the potential to severely damage Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry which could have profound impacts in other areas including security and economic support.

IRAC has contacted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yaakov Ne’eman asking for support against this legislation. IRAC’s lawyers are lobbying the Knesset to vote against the proposal and a global letter writing campaign has commenced in opposition to the law. Additionally, IRAC is supported by many of the left-wing political parties in Israel including Labor and Kadima in addition to international organizations including the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.

Email Prime Minister Netanyahu at Prime.Minister’sOffice@it.pmo.gov.il

Email U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren’s office at info@washington.mfa.gov.il

See Related: ISRAEL-MIDEAST

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