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ISRAEL: Conversion bill rattles relations with U.S. Jews and Israeli politics

July 13, 2010 |  8:19 am

A bill proposing (among other things) that control of conversions to Judaism be given to the country’s chief rabbinate, an orthodox body, is causing political controversy in Israel and threatening a big family feud outside it.

The question of "who is a Jew" has been asked -- and avoided -- since Israel’s inception. The interesting religious issue has practical civic repercussions in Israel, which passed the "Law of Return" in 1950. In a nutshell, it determined that anyone entering Israel as a Jew would be entitled to immediate citizenship.

 A later amendment clarified that for this purpose, a Jew "means a person born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion." The state law reflects religious law. The main gate into Judaism is biology, by way of maternal heredity. The second way is by conversion. At the time, religious Judaism in Israel was synonymous with Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy welcomes new Jews, as long as they come in through the main door of orthodox conversion. Reform and Conservative streams are very nice religions, they say, but these won’t serve as a back door in. We’re not looking to recruit, said Ultra-Orthodox legislator Moshe Gafni in a heated debate in Parliament on Monday, saying even “membership in a beer-drinkers’ club is based on specific criteria.” 

The majority of religious Israelis are orthodox. Until recent years, different streams have been heavily Anglo but this is slowly changing as more Israelis want to reclaim some tradition but don’t want the whole package deal. But in the U.S., most are Reform or Conservative. and “are furious with Israel over its religious policies,” says this story in which rabbis warn of a crisis with American Jews.

Various local complexities have resulted in an oddity whereby one can be Jewish enough to qualify for the Law of Return and receive Israeli citizenship but not enough for the Orthodox rabbinate establishment, which controls religious matters such as marriage.  And hundreds of thousands of Israelis have found themselves in this limbo, among them many immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Yisrael Beytenu promised its constituency legislation that would provide marriage alternatives. Now some accuse it of an under-the-table swap with the religious parties, marriage in return for controlling conversions. The conversion bill was tabled by David Rotem, of Yisrael Beytenu, and actually intended to simplify things by allowing rabbinate-appointed city rabbis to handle conversions too. But it appeared to gather some excess baggage on the way to help it pass a vote, such as the controversial clause that linked the conversion to citizenship. Rotem announced he's removing it.

Relations between Israel and U.S. Jews are already somewhat strained, taxed by debates such as that recently sparked by Peter Beinart. Dismissive treatment of non-Orthodox Jews will further alienate them and others living outside Israel, people warn. Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, said the legislation would be divisive, as many regard it as defining them as "second-class Jews."

In Israel, too, non-Orthodox Jews meet with challenges. Anat Hoffman knew about these even before she was detained by the police Monday for holding a Torah scroll outside the area designated for women at the Western Wall.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a calming message, saying final legislation would "ensure the Jewish people's unity." When will this final legislation take place? Hard to tell. The preliminary reading passed in March caused tremendous controversy. Same for Monday, when it passed a ministerial committee vote. It still needs to pass three readings to become permanent legislation. 

"Next week the Knesset will go on recess and we want to do the utmost to end this chapter, this legislation" before it, said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beytenu. Only that was in March. It's not for nothing this is taking a long time. Next week, the Knesset is going on vacation again. Until October.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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