Gauging U.S. upset over the conversion bill


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to grasp that the converison bill really is a big deal to many Diaspora Jews, including many who are generally out front in supporting Israel. But in case you have any doubts, check out these two op-eds.

Tablet’s Alana Newhouse took to The New York Times to register her objections in an opinion piece titled "The Diaspora Need Not Apply." Keep in mind it wasn’t so long ago that Newhouse was rejecting Peter Beinhart’s argument about young Jews being alienated from Israel’s right-leaning government — so even if you’re inclined to dismiss her takedown of the conversion bill as over-the-top, it’s hard to dismiss the source. She’s an important under-40 writer who’s far from knee-jerk when it comes to such issues:

But perhaps a more practical rallying cry will work: If this bill passes, future historians will inevitably wonder why, at a critical moment in its history, Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews.

Why, they will wonder, as Iran raced to build a nuclear bomb to wipe the Jewish state off the map, did the custodians of the 2,000-year-old national dream of the Jewish people choose such a perverse definition of Jewish peoplehood, seemingly calculated to alienate supporters outside its own borders?

And, they will also wonder, what of the quiescence of diaspora Jewry? Many American Jews understandably see Israel as under siege and have not wanted to make things worse; they imagined that internal politicking over conversions and marriages was ephemeral, and would change. But the conversion bill is a sign that this silence was a mistake, for it has been interpreted by Israeli politicians as a green light to throw basic questions of Jewish identity into the pot of coalition politics.

Still not convinced about the depth and breadth of upset over this issue? It’s not often that David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee, is offering harsh public criticism of Israel or its policies. But he’s pulling no punches on this one. Here’s what he had to say in The Jerusalem Post:

Having devoted my career to the defense of the Jewish people, I do not make distinctions among Jews. In my book, all Jews have the inalienable right to live in freedom, equality and safety.

Sixteen years ago – July 18, 1994 – 85 people were killed in a terrorist attack on the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. Hundreds more were injured. The perpetrators were intent on killing Jews. It did not matter whether the Jews were Orthodox or non-Orthodox, Zionist or non-Zionist, Jews by birth or choice. All that counted, for the terrorists, was that the victims identified as Jews and the AMIA was a Jewish institution – one, by the way, that served the entire Jewish community without distinction.

And in my studies of the Holocaust, I do not recall any reference to separate box cars, ghettos or barracks for Jews based on their, shall we say, degree of Jewishness. The Nazis had their Nuremberg Laws defining who was a Jew. That was that. The result is known.

In other words, we are a community of shared destiny, just as we are a community of shared ancestry.

Yet there are those who would willfully divide us, investing a monopoly of power in one interested party, creating hierarchies of "membership in the club," and relentlessly questioning the legitimacy of other would-be Jews.

Those who oppose such efforts must speak out loud and clear. The stakes are high – in fact, they could not be higher. As I have written earlier, we face the question whether we are to be a welcoming or a walled-off people.

Harris’ piece also underscores the degree to which personal experience serves to reinforce and strengthen Diaspora Jewish convinctions on such issues:

In 1978, my girlfriend, Giulietta, and I decided to marry. We were living in Vienna and working with Soviet Jewish refugees arriving in the West en route to new lives. The work was exhilarating. It was also dangerous. Ever since the 1973 hijacking by Arab terrorists of a train carrying Soviet Jews across Czechoslovakia to Vienna, followed by several letter bombs, everyone was on high alert. Gun-toting guards were ever present in our lives.

We wanted a simple marriage and approached the local rabbi, who was Orthodox. That was fine with us. My future wife was from an Orthodox family, and our work, involving Jews of every conceivable background, only underscored our sense of the "oneness" of the Jewish people.

But it was not to be. The rabbi could not have been less gracious or more suspicious. Here we were putting our lives on the line for the Jewish people, yet he asked us endless questions about our identity, later insisting on a paper trail a mile long. We were taken aback. We thought the rabbi would be delighted to preside at a Jewish wedding in Vienna, barely 30 years after the Shoah. Surely, there could not have been all that many.

In the end, we dropped the idea of marrying there.

The punchline: Harris and his wife ended up being married by Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained by the Reform movement.

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