I find quite puzzling the vehement opposition of the American Conservative and Reform movements and Jewish Federations of North America to the conversion bill proposed by Knesset member David Rotem.
Within the framework of halacha, or Jewish law, the Rotem bill expands the scope of conversion, prevents application of stringencies unjustified by halacha, and provides greater convenience, leniency and flexibility in the administration of Israeli conversion courts. It addresses many issues raised by Orthodox rabbis considered liberal by the Israeli media and has their strong support. It is strongly supported by Yisrael Beiteinu, the secular party that represents Russian Israelis.
Nevertheless, a segment of the leadership of Jewish Federations of North American and the American Conservative and Reform movements unleashed an artificial firestorm of opposition, soliciting e-mails from members and letters from the U.S. Congress, and successfully delaying passage of the bill.
Opponents of the Rotem bill claim it radically changes the status quo, placing power for state-recognized conversion in Israel in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. This is untrue. Government-recognized conversions to Judaism performed in Israel have been under the control of the Chief Rabbinate since the founding of the state in 1948. The bill merely confirms longstanding practice in response to court cases seeking to challenge the status quo. Advertisement
Why did leaders of these American Jewish groups take action they knew would hurt many Russian Israelis?
They hoped to leverage their political power in the United States to force Israel to accede to their parochial agenda – namely, granting Reform and Conservative conversions the official recognition accorded to Orthodox conversions.
This request might appear to be reasonable to an American Jew. It is not. The context of Jewish life in the United States is very different from Jewish life in Israel. Rampant intermarriage in the U.S. explains in large part, though in no way justifies, the push for relaxed conversion standards and the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent.
Intermarriage is thankfully far less of a problem in the Jewish state. Moreover, despite strenuous efforts, the Reform and Conservative movements themselves have not taken root in Israel. They arose in reaction to post-Enlightenment pressure on Diaspora Jews. These pressures do not exist in Israel.
Non-Orthodox Israeli Jews may be more or less observant (“masorti“) or even totally secular (“chiloni“), but they do not need the crutch of identification with non-halachic movements to sustain their Jewish national identities. They speak Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, celebrate Jewish holidays and are closely bound to the collective fate of the Jewish people, courageously serving in Israel’s army.
Very few non-Jewish Russian Israelis are interested in a Reform or Conservative conversion, regarding them as inauthentic. They are Diaspora transplants that have withered in Israel’s Jewish soil and failed in Israel’s free marketplace of ideas.
Principles are not a suit of clothes to be donned and shed at convenience. It is inconsistent for Conservative leaders to insist that Israel recognize Reform conversions performed without immersion in a mikveh or circumcision when they do not recognize such conversions performed in the United States. The Reform movement, which argues for the absolute separation of religion and state in the United States, inconsistently insists upon official recognition of their spiritual leaders by the government of Israel.
Even more puzzling is the position of the Jewish Federations of North America. How can its leaders justify spending funds raised for charitable purposes on an ideological issue, particularly when it is so controversial? Moreover, when they have not significantly consulted the American Orthodox movements or their own Orthodox contributors, how can they purport to be representing the entire spectrum of American Jewry?
A Reform Jewish leader was quoted as bemoaning the fact that the controversy has “even reached the U.S. Congress, causing dismay to all who love the Jewish state.”
What an extraordinary statement! The bill did not simply drift into the Capitol like a feather borne by a random breeze. The Rotem bill came to the attention of Congress because of the determined lobbying efforts of its opponents – the same people who now claim they are distressed by the damage to U.S.-Israeli relations. U.S. congressmen do not spontaneously take an interest in internal Israeli religious issues that do not affect their constituents.