By Paul Lungen
The Canadian Jewish News
Diaspora Jews are calling on the government of Israel to kill a bill they say would strengthen haredi Judaism at the expense of other Judaic streams and widen the gap between them and Israelis.
The bill now before the Knesset law committee has also come under fire from Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and from the Jewish Federations of North America, which called it “an affront to world Jewry.”
Conservative and Reform Jews in Canada are writing to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to intervene to make sure the bill as it now stands does not pass.
At the heart of their concerns is a provision that would amend Israel’s Law of Return by preventing converts to Judaism from automatically gaining citizenship if they had ever entered Israel prior to their conversion. Concerns have also been raised that the bill gives the Chief Rabbinate virtual veto power over Israeli conversions – power it does not have today.
The legislation in question was tabled by Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is our Home) MK David Rotem to fulfil a campaign promise to ease the conversion of tens of thousands of immigrants, mostly Russian, who are not halachically Jewish. The bill he advanced proposed permitting local city rabbis to perform conversions. During parliamentary negotiations, two provisions were added that have caused consternation among Diaspora Jews. The first gives the Chief Rabbinate power to annul conversions. The second affects the Law of Return. Reports suggest the latter provision was inserted to prevent temporary workers and even terrorists from converting and claiming citizenship.
In a letter to Miriam Ziv, Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl states: “This legislation will have the effect of providing for a path to alter the Law of Return or, at the least, cause undue hardship to anyone in Israel who has come from the Diaspora communities and seeks conversion in Israel.”
The bill will set back efforts “to create greater accessibility to conversion courts in Israel” while adversely impacting the work of the Masorti [Conservative] movement in Israel, said Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in Canada.
ARZA Canada, which represents Reform Jews, called on its members to write to Netanyahu requesting “your immediate intervention to prevent passage of the legislation,” which if adopted, would “have the effect of altering the Law of Return, or at the least, cause undue hardship to anyone in Israel who has come from Diaspora communities and seeks conversion in Israel.”
Rabbi Michael Stroh, a spokesperson for ARZA Canada, said “the basis of our concern is the further limitation of the ability of people who want to become Jewish to convert to Judaism, even under Orthodox auspices.” (City rabbis in Israel are appointed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.)
While the provision permitting local conversions “might be massageable,” the other components of the bill “are horrendous,” he said.
The annulment provision “suggests someone who converts to Judaism could have their conversion overturned,” contrary to longstanding Jewish practice, Rabbi Stroh said.
And the clause restricting application of the Law of Return to people born Jewish or those converted abroad (providing they’ve never visited Israel prior to their conversion) violates an ancient principle of Judaism, which “does not make any distinction between those born Jews and those who convert. They’re 100 per cent Jews,” he said.
Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said the legislation started out trying to decentralize the conversion process in Israel by giving that power to local rabbis. But during negotiations to advance the bill, “Rotem essentially capitulated to the chief rabbi, so he made the situation worse. The chief rabbi will determine who at the local level is okay to handle this. It only appears to decentralize, but in a sense, it only strengthens the hand of the chief rabbi.”
Over the past 10 years, the haredi establishment in Israel had continued to “devalue” Reform and Conservative Judaism, and in the last two years, it has devalued “liberal Orthodox rabbis,” limiting the acceptance of their conversions, he said.
Rabbi Stroh said that “the whole thing is a political manoeuvre by the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate to get more control and power over Jews and the State of Israel.”
That’s a view shared in Israel by Rabbi Michael Melchior, former minister for Diaspora relations. He said the dispute over the bill, and the threat by the Ashkenazi haredi party (United Torah Judaism) to bolt the government over the bill are “a classical example of how we mess up things at the highest level.”
Rabbi Melchior said Rotem’s bill, before it was amended at the behest of haredi parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism), resembled one he had proposed years ago.
“The bill was an attempt, without breaking all the principles and rules regarding conversions, to make conversions a little bit easier” by permitting city rabbis across Israel to perform them, he said.
By treating all of Israel as a single jurisdiction for the purpose of conversion, a convert could choose any rabbi he felt comfortable with, and it would prevent a second rabbi from overturning that conversion, he said.
As the bill proceeded through the deliberative process in the Knesset, the Chief Rabbinate wanted a clause inserted to give it sole authority to annul conversions, while “the ultra-Orthodox, who control everybody and everything, made a big fuss about this,” Rabbi Melchior said.
They will support the bill only if conversions are limited to rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate – effectively shutting out moderate rabbis, he added.
It would put an end to the country’s conversion institute, which has special religious courts headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, established to streamline the process, and which includes the input of Conservative and Reform Judaism. The institute “was a real, serious attempt to do something for the unity of the Jewish people,” he said.
(The conversion courts have experienced a crisis in recent years, in part as a result of rabbinic court rulings that voided thousands of conversions.)
Giving the Chief Rabbinate sole authority over the legitimacy of conversions is a departure from current practice and gives the chief rabbi authority that does not exist now in Israel, Rabbi Melchior said.
The result, he predicted, is that “more Jews will feel estranged from the State of Israel. Israel speaks to all Jews and the children of Jews, and we cannot afford to send a signal to the non-Orthodox world that they are not welcome in the State of Israel.”
Rabbi Stroh said controversies such as the conversion bill make the job of the Reform movement in Israel that much harder. “Orthodox control makes Judaism very unpalatable to many Israelis,” he said. In effect, it gives religion a bad name and “makes it hard for Reform and Conservative to bring Judaism to Israelis.”
In a news release, the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents 157 federated communities and 400 smaller centres, called on the Israeli government to enter a dialogue with Diaspora Jews before amending the Law of Return.
That issue “is of urgent importance to our communities,” the news release said.
“We implore the Israeli government to seriously consider the concerns and sensitivities of Diaspora Jews before acting on such proposals. Changes to the Law of Return could adversely affect many members of our community by preventing them from making aliyah and becoming Israeli citizens. Any action of this type would be an affront to world Jewry.”
Sharansky, a former MK, said the bill went from one intended to address question of conversions by municipal rabbis to one affecting citizenship and the issue of who is a Jew.
“The last thing Israel needs is to open a front against the many Jews who live in the Diaspora,” he told the Jerusalem Post.
Echoing the language of critics of Israel’s haredi parties, Rabbi Melchior said, “I’m very sad… The Torah does not allow us to embarrass or hurt the feelings of people who want to convert to Judaism, and that’s being forgotten in the power play and politics.”
Rabbi Melchior is not optimistic about the resolution of the issue. Although the bill is currently in limbo, “the Zionist parties probably couldn’t care less” about concerns of North American Jews. “It’s not a big issue in Israel. It’s not something that concerns them. What concerns the political establishment is to preserve the coalition [government].”
Still, he worries that Israel can ill afford “a world war with the Reform and Conservative movement and the major Jewish organizations.”
See Related: ISRAEL CONVERSION LAW DRAWS U.S. CRITICS