Role reversals in conversion fight


The biggest Jewish news of the past 10 days was the surprise move Monday by Israeli lawmaker David Rotem, when he pushed his controversial conversion bill through the Knesset’s Law Committee. The bill, which would put conversions to Judaism squarely in the hands of the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate, now moves to the full Knesset, which must approve it three times in order to make it law.

Pressure is coming from many angles to prod Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Knesset to table the votes until after the government’s two-month recess. That would give opponents the time to get Rotem, who crafted the bill, to either withdraw or seriously amend it.

The bill’s many critics say the measure would drive a wedge between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora by crushing the movement to create a religiously pluralistic Judaism in the Holy Land. Pundits have been weighing in, taking to the pages of, among others,  The Jerusalem Post, The Atlantic Online and Dan Sieradski’s Facebook page.

And naturally the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have been incredibly vocal on the matter — this boils down to a fight over their legitimacy in Israel. 

But it is the Jewish federation system and the Jewish Agency for Israel that have taken center stage here.

Natan Sharansky, the agency’s chairman, has officially led the push, acting as the lead negotiator with political leaders in Israel from his longtime political ally Netanyahu to Rotem. Sharansky has been bidding to drum up official parliamentary opposition to the bill and trying to get Rotem to back off, though the Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker is under pressure from the Shas Party to push through the bill without changes.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, has openly lambasted the bill, calling Rotem’s move a betrayal.

As it stands now, this all makes sense — Sharansky and the JFNA both have much to gain if they manage to stop the bill. Doing so would strengthen the position for both with key constituencies at a time when JAFI and JFNA have detractors publicly questioning their viability, legitimacy and need to exist. On the flip side, JAFI and JFNA would have had even more to lose if they had sat out this fight and let the religious streams take the lead, as they would have appeared out of touch with a Diaspora Jewish community that is decidedly pluralistic.

Yet the lens of history shows their pro-pluralist position was not always a given.

For the past decade, the Jewish federation system has indeed been an important supporter of the religious pluralism effort in Israel. But back in 1997, the system was literally cornered into supporting the movement.

Reform and Conservative leaders at the time were fighting two fights. The Knesset was debating another bill on conversion that would have made all conversions in Israel subject to Orthodox approval. In addition, the non-Orthodox movements were fighting desperately for the right to have egalitarian prayer at the plaza in front of the Western Wall following incidents in which Israeli police hassled a number of Reform and Conservative services.

In September of that year, the United Jewish Appeal and local federations agreed to raise up to $20 million to support the then-fledgling projects of the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel. But that was only after intense pressure from the liberal movements, which threatened to start their own fund-raising campaigns — a move the federation system feared would significantly damage its own annual campaigns, and after several rabbis the previous year had called for a boycott of the federation system for lack of support.

In exchange for the $20 million, the rabbis behind the threats agreed to call for the unity of the Jewish people and to offer public support for the federated campaign, as JTA wrote back in 1997

Sharansky’s turnabout is even more striking.

A brief history:

As the former dissident, who in a sense is the face of the 450,000 Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union over the past 30 years, Sharansky has found himself squarely in the middle of the conversion issue, especially because it is so closely tied to who can become an automatic citizen of Israel via the Law of Return.

During the early part of his political career, he sided with those that supported Orthodox-only conversions — a move that left many Reform and Conservative Jews feeling betrayed, given their previous efforts to help free him from the Soviet Union.

In 1997, when the “Who is a Jew” debate approached meltdown status, the Jewish Agency and federations unsuccessfully lobbied Sharansky, then a minister in the first Netanyahu government, to oppose the conversion bill in question. He met with a delegation led by the Reform movement’s Rabbi Eric Yoffie arguing that Israel and Diaspora relations were tenuous at best, and giving the Orthodox a monopoly would be a dangerous step. 

“Just as you ask us to understand Israeli reality, you have to understand the reality of U.S. Jewry,” Yoffie told Sharansky at the time. “So that we will remain one people, 3 million Reform Jews need to know that the government of Israel understands them, knows them, is aware of their problems and considers them legitimate.”

Even then, Sharansky showed signs of understanding the stakes, as he helped forge a compromise by helping to create a committee comprised of Reform, Orthodox and Conservative officials to discuss pluralism in Israel. Yet he still personally supported Orthodox conversion as the status quo and supported the conversion bill.

In 1999, Netanyahu revived the bill under pressure from the Orthodox parties that threatened to destroy his coalition. And Sharansky, his ally, was heckled at a meeting of the World Union for Progressive Zionism — world leaders of the Reform movement.

The next year, Sharansky further irked Reform leaders when he said that he would not approve so-called “quickie” conversions performed in the Diaspora unless those who had gone through the conversions could prove their connections to the Diaspora Jewish community through which they converted.

But now, as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, who has steered his organization along a path to build Jewish identity by strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations, Sharansky seems to have switched positions, lining up with those who say that Orthodox-only conversion policies are in no one’s best interest except the Rabbinate. And now it is Sharansky taking the lead in trying to convince Netanyahu not to go down that road.

Recommended from JTA