Focus on Issues: U.S. Jews Warn of Major Fight over New Conversion Legislation

Reform and Conservative movement leaders are warning of a “Who Is A Jew: Round Two.”

A decade ago, non-Orthodox Jews embarked on a major battle to fight legislation in Israel that they believed threatened their legitimacy.

Now the liberal movements again are adopting a no-holds-barred lobbying strategy against an Israeli government initiative that would delegitimize all non-Orthodox conversions.

Proposed legislation, which was expected to be submitted to the Knesset as early as this week, states that no conversion to Judaism will be legally recognized in Israel without the approval of the Chief Rabbinate

The measure, which is supported by Orthodox Jews in America, was initiated by the Orthodox political parties in the coalition government and has the full backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The bill does not specifically refer to conversions within Israel. As a result, it is being read by American Jewish religious leaders across the denominational spectrum to mean that it would also undermine the legal standing of non- Orthodox conversions performed outside of Israel.

At issue for many Diaspora Jews is not the relatively small number of people who convert to Judaism within the liberal movements and either live in or want to emigrate to Israel.

Instead, non-Orthodox leaders say, the heart of the matter is the message that Israel would be delivering to the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jews: that the Jewish state, homeland for all Jews, is rejecting as illegitimate their definition of Jewishness.

“It’s an absolute affront to world Jewry that legislation would be introduced to deny the religious sensibilities of the vast majority of the world’s Jews,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, warned: “If American Jewish leadership does not articulate its dismay quickly, we could find ourselves with a law that will distance Israel from the Diaspora.”

For its part, the Israeli government says it is in a quandary.

Israel’s Supreme Court “is putting pressure on us, saying that either we make a decision or they will,” an official in the Netanyahu administration said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

When the Supreme Court last year issued a decision paving the way for the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, Orthodox parties vowed to introduce legislation to bar them, and made support for such legislation a condition for joining Netanyahu’s coalition government.

“Within Likud, there is a great deal of concern that we don’t want to alienate Diaspora leadership, but on the other hand we don’t want the government to fall,” the Israeli official said, noting the coalition’s dependence on the Orthodox parties.

The quasi-governmental Chief Rabbinate’s office, which is strictly Orthodox, does not currently recognize as valid any conversion performed under the auspices of the liberal religious movements. The rabbinate controls all matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, conversion and burial.

But the government of Israel does, and through the Law of Return, guarantees citizenship to anyone who is born Jewish or converts to Judaism outside of Israel.

“The bill is a back door way of modifying the Law of Return and changing the definition of `Who is a Jew,’” Hirsch said.

A direct effort to alter the Law of Return in the mid-1980s by the Orthodox parties then in the Israeli government resulted in the “Who is a Jew” debacle, which threatened to create a wide rift in Diaspora support for Israel.

The parties sought to add the words to the Law of Return: “converted according to halachah,” or the Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law.

This time around, the anticipated legislation is being welcomed by the heads of the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, two major groups representing Orthodox Jews.

Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, said he was happy with the Netanyahu government’s effort “to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate.”

“We have always rejected attempts to transplant the pluralism of the U.S. or of Christian countries to a Jewish society,” he said. “The secular builders of Israel understood that Israel can only have one chief rabbi, one set of laws for kashrus and conversion and Jewish identity” when they endowed the rabbinate with control over all matters of personal status, Ganchrow said.

Ganchrow also lambasted the Reform and Conservative movements for “making this an issue.”

“Let us not super-saturate the air with this kind of controversy, and let us work together here on assimilation and intermarriage,” he said.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel of America, said, “This type of legislation is important in order to not further split the Jewish people into two groups, one which cannot intermarry with the other because they are merely pretending to be Jews.

“It is more important to keep the Jews intact as a nation,” he said, than to worry about creating problems between “a segment of American Jews and Israel.”

Leaders of the Reform and Conservative denominations, which represent more than 90 percent of American Jews who identify with a movement, are approaching the matter in several ways.

The goal of their strategy, they said, is to convince the Israeli prime minister that the bill must be withdrawn to preserve the financial and emotional relationship between Jews in the Diaspora and in Israel.

“To risk additional confrontation with the two religious movements which represent the majority of American Jews is the height of folly,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

“A prime minister who has a reputation for understanding American Jewish life should do better,” he said.

Yoffie and Schorsch jointly sent Netanyahu a terse letter last Friday, requesting a private meeting with him when he comes to the United States next week to address the Council of Jewish Federations’ General Assembly.

“We are gravely concerned at the news” of the pending legislation, they wrote.

Yoffie also wrote to the president of CJF, asking him to put the matter on the agenda of the group’s G.A., which will bring together thousands of Jewish communal leaders in Seattle.

When the Israeli government was on the brink of amending the Law of Return in 1988, North American Jewish communal leaders embarked on an unprecedented lobbying effort and traveled in waves of delegations to the Jewish state. They met with Israeli government leaders to impress upon them the damage that such a change would cause.

In the end, the legislation was withdrawn and a crisis was averted.

With Reform and Conservative leaders at the helm of the protest effort, other Jewish organizations are also speaking out.

Martin Kraar, CJF’s executive vice president, said, “We’re seriously concerned about this. It is causing a significant number of our constituents to be concerned and this week we are weighing our options for how to deal with it.”

Six months ago, veteran Jewish leader Shoshana Cardin, a former president of CJF who in 1988 led the organized Jewish community’s fight against the proposed legislation, suggested that CJF create a committee to explain to Israeli leaders why efforts to delegitimize non-Orthodox movements in Israel would damage Israel-Diaspora relations.

That committee is now being formed. David Minkin, the chair of the as-yet- unnamed committee, responded to the latest developments, saying, “We are accelerating, to say the least.”

When this proposed legislation becomes known, said Minkin, an Atlanta attorney, “I expect we’ll see responses in every community across the country.”

Cardin, for one, fears that the Jewish community will not respond the way it did in 1988.

“There has been a growing gap” between American Jews and Israel over the last nine years, she said.

Cardin said she worries that young American Jewish leaders will react by simply retreating from pro-Israel activism. “Some may say that if things for Israel improve [politically and economically] and `I am not included, or a member of my family is not considered to be a full Jew, then I will express my Jewishness only here in the U.S.,’” she said.

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