NEW YORK (JTA) – Leading officials from the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the non-Orthodox U.S. Jewish religious movements are slamming a Knesset committee’s passage of a controversial bill that would change Israel’s process for conversion to Judaism.
For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated Rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.
The bill, proposed by Knesset member David Rotem, has been derided by opponents in the United States who have urged Rotem and the bill’s backers to revise the proposal, fearing that it would drive a wedge between Israel and the Diaspora by discounting non-Orthodox conversion in Israel.
They fear that giving power over conversion to the Rabbinate could have an effect on Israel’s Law of Return, which grants immediate Israeli citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent or to any convert to Judaism.
The critics have been led by the Jewish Agency’s chairman, Natan Sharansky, who has urged Israeli politicians – including his political ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to push Rotem to reassess the proposed bill before trying to pass it.
Rotem’s detractors argue that Israel may not do anything that could affect the Law of Return without discussing it with the Jewish Agency based on a clause in that law that guarantees that the Jewish Agency will be consulted on any change to immigration law.
They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem that he would further discuss and amend the bill before he tried to push it through the Knesset.
But in a surprise move Monday, the Knesset’s Law Committee approved the bill, with some minor adjustments, sending it to the Knesset, which now will have to go through a multi-stage process to pass the bill.
That Rotem even brought the bill before the Law Committee outraged the leaders of the U.S. Jewish religious streams, who sent off a flurry of strongly worded correspondence late Sunday night.
“We have great faith in Sharansky’s ability to represent Jews from across the world, and to find a path that is acceptable to all,” the JFNA’s Silverman wrote in a letter to Netanyahu. “That is why we are deeply shocked and disappointed to hear that the bill will suddenly be presented tomorrow in its current, highly problematic format without any input from Sharansky or Diaspora communities. All of the discussions, understandings and efforts seem to have disappeared overnight and we are left feeling upset and even betrayed by MK Rotem and those behind the bill.”
The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, said in a letter that he and the leaders of 14 other liberal Jewish organizations, including the Conservative movement, which co-signed the letter “were dismayed to learn this afternoon of the decision by MK David Rotem to put forward a version of the Conversion Law to be presented to the Law, Constitution and Justice Committee tomorrow morning. MK Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”
After the bill passed through the Law Committee by a 5-4 vote, Sharansky urged Netanyahu to take action, saying the bill could prove disastrous.
“We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” Sharansky said. “We are at the beginning of the month of Av, the time when the Temple was destroyed because the Jewish people were busy with internal fighting instead of dealing with real dangers posed by their enemies. Jews abroad are the most loyal supporters of Israel, and stand at the forefront of the fight for Israel’s image around the world.”
“The proposed bill was supposed to have been discussed in detail with world Jewry,” Sharansky added. “I hope the prime minister will send a clear message that this proposed legislation will not move forward without proper discussion and consultation with all those who feel they may be harmed by it.”