Op-Ed: In opposing conversion bill, U.S. Jews practice hypocrisy, hurt Israel

RISHON LEZION, Israel (JTA) — The media has reported 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. I find their opposition puzzling. 

Within the framework of halachah, or Jewish law, the Rotem bill expands the scope of conversion, prevents application of stringencies unjustified by halachah, 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.

The bill deserves unanimous support from everyone who genuinely cares about the welfare of 300,000 non-Jewish Russian Israelis. But 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 that 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. 

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 United States explains in large part, though in no way justifies, the push for relaxed conversion standards and the Reform movement’s shocking 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. Only 1 percent identify with Reform or Conservative Judaism.

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.

Rather than recognizing that their lack of significant progress over the past 62 years of Israeli statehood is due to a flawed product, Conservative and Reform leaders have chosen to blame the Chief Rabbinate. Ignoring democratic principles, they have improperly intervened on the Rotem bill, a matter that affects only Israelis and not American Jews. The bill has no impact outside of Israel.

Principles are not a suit of clothes to be donned and shed at convenience. It is inconsistent for the Conservative movement to insist that Israel recognize Reform conversions performed without immersion in a mikvah or circumcision when they do not recognize such conversions when 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?

Even critical strategic threats to the State of Israel have been ignored by opponents of the Rotem bill. A Reform Jewish leader was quoted in the JTA on July 26 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.

Yet despite the looming Iranian nuclear crisis endangering the very existence of the State of Israel, the bill’s opponents jeopardized Israel’s congressional support, placing their movement’s narrow concerns above the security of the Jewish state. Ironically, they used coercive measures — a sin they habitually attribute to the Chief Rabbinate — to deny the democratically elected Knesset the independent right to determine rules governing Jewish descent in Israel, even though they independently decreed that patrilineal descent determines Jewish identity in the United States.

Finally, let us consider what would happen if efforts to change the status quo are successful. The results would be catastrophic for Jewish unity. Non-halachic conversions could throw into question the Jewish lineage and hence the Jewish credentials of non-Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews might be forced to maintain their own lineage lists and marry only within the Orthodox community.

This nightmare scenario is not far-fetched. It has occurred several times in the course of Jewish history, when deviant Jewish sects — which, not coincidentally, have disappeared — strayed from traditional practices relating to conversion, marriage and divorce. 

It is self-evident, or should be, that Israel’s laws should be determined only by its residents, who defend its security and bear its burdens. But permit me to suggest an ethical alternative to our Jewish brethren in the Diaspora: Immigrate to Israel.

All Jews are welcome: secular, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. They are our brothers and sisters, and we will greet them with great joy. As citizens they would then legitimately be entitled to struggle to enact their views into law. 

Until such time, however, they should stop opposing the Rotem bill and allow it to pass in January. Their opposition already has caused great damage to tens of thousands of Russian Israelis who wish to join the Jewish people.

As the Day of Atonement nears, all of us should pray for the unity of the Jewish people and ask the Almighty to forgive the sins of our callous hearts.

(Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar is the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.)

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