Building bridges or building walls — Israel’s options and ours

Building bridges or building walls — Israel’s options and ours

The Jerusalem District Court’s recent decision denying the right of a Guatemalan Jew who had converted under the aegis of the Reform movement to move to Israel is an affront to Jews everywhere who champion the cause of klal Yisrael – the entirety of the Jewish people.

In his ruling, Judge Vinograd upheld the refusal of the Ministry of Interior, to whom the case was referred by the Jewish Agency, to allow the petitioner to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. The plain reading of the Law allows Jewish converts of any recognized Jewish denomination to immediate citizenship upon immigration to Israel.

Probably because of the speed of Judge Ram Vinograd’s decision and its effect on only a single person, the issue did not get the attention in Israel or the Diaspora that it deserved. Nevertheless, the unfairness of the decision, which is neither singular nor exceptional, should cause people with a conscience serious consternation.

The rationale for the decision was that the Guatemalan Adat Israel community is not Jewish enough to allow the applicant for aliyah, Rony Valiz, to immigrate under the Law of Return. Playing mental gymnastics, the Ministry of the Interior and the court turned the Law of Return on its head. That law clearly states that Jews of choice who are converted under the aegis of “recognized” Jewish communities, broadly defined as the established religious streams, are eligible to immigrate to Israel. In this case, the members of the community were converted by Reform rabbis after study with them. The community is affiliated today with the World Union of Progressive Judaism, the umbrella organization of the Reform movement. This was not enough for the court, which determined that the community did not meet the Ministry’s criteria, namely that it be “established and active, with a common and known Jewish identity and with frameworks in place for communal administration.” It is, however, just such a community, recognized by the Reform movement, with an ongoing relationship with a Reform synagogue in Toronto. But the Israeli government and courts continue to exclude it, adamantly denying its identity as a Jewish community.

We are told that the issue is complex. There are steps that must be taken regarding qualifications. There is, however, recognition of such groups, which the Jewish Agency grants to what it calls “emerging Jewish communities.” Theoretically, such recognition should be accepted by the Ministry of the Interior, and people from these communities who want to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return or receive student visas should have no problem doing either. It seems that this designation is not a way station to full recognition. Rather, it seems like the terminus for all the communities that are awaiting the next step, facing a growing number of roadblocks as time passes.

Tragically, the Adat Israel is not the only community that has been rejected over the years. To mention only two instances, members of the Abayudaya community of Uganda and of Havurat Shirat Hayam in Columbia were denied the rights of immigration under the Law of Return. The applicants from both of these communities were converted by Conservative rabbinical courts. Their communities are affiliated with the Masorti Olami, the international umbrella organization of Conservative congregations.

There are so many issues that beg to be addressed.

First, of course, is the continuous re-interpretation of the Law of Return in order to impose the narrowest definition of who qualifies as being Jewish. But the disdain in which sectors of Israel’s government hold for the communities living outside Israel is even more important. While Israel sends its representatives to “save” Jews, as we saw after the disaster in Surfside, Florida, it is derisive of Diaspora communities and their leadership. This is made clear by its delegitimizing of the conversions performed by the Conservative and Reform movements.

During the past year, concern over these issue in the American Jewish community has become more tangible. The major American movements have begun to raise their voices against the refusal to recognize the Abayudaya as Jews with rights under the Law of Return. Coordinated by Achvah: The Partnership for Abayudaya Rights, a newly created grassroots partnership, organizations representing the entire religious spectrum have come together, joining with Masorti Olami and the American Jewish Committee, to express their concern about what can only be described as an autocratic approach to the Abayudaya community. The Jewish Agency, at least, has been listening. Its leadership recently met with representatives of Achvah to explore how to create a coherent policy of recognition for the emerging communities.

Efforts on behalf of particular communities are part of the much larger and more critical issue of the relationship between Israel and world Jewry. In every sector of the organized Jewish community we hear questions raised about the responsibilities of Israel and the Diaspora communities to each other. This question goes to the heart of the definition of Zionism.

Matters have gotten to the point where leaders of the organized Jewish community are asking how to relate to an Israel that refuses to recognize the Abayudaya and other similar communities whose Jewish observance and love of Israel are palpable. This question, raised over and over again in court case after court case, is one that Israel can ill afford to ignore or allow to fester, for both ideological and practical reasons.

The feeling on the Diaspora side is that the governing powers in Israel disdain the views of the majority of American Jews. This goes to the heart of the meaning of Zionism, which claims Israel to be the homeland of the entire the Jewish people and world Jewry’s center. Unless a serious conversation reconciling the visions of Israel and Diaspora Jewry takes place, the Zionist dream of uniting world Jewry will be only a pipe dream.

Israel can embrace an inclusive Zionism and notion of peoplehood that will build bridges to Jewry worldwide, or it can choose to build a moat of exclusion around itself.

We hope that Israel and the Diaspora will find ways to enter into a conversation that will build bridges rather than walls. Too much is at stake for anything other than there being a shared Israel-Diaspora vision of mutual responsibility and shared support for our communities, whether established or emerging.

These often divisive and hurtful issues have had a short but corrosive history. They must come to a head and be resolved positively.

These are the hopes we now place in a new Israeli government and its ministers.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick of Teaneck is professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Gordon Silverman, who lives in New York City, has devoted his almost 50-year career in Jewish communal service to the continuing creation of a diverse and inclusive Jewish community. He has served in almost every sector of the Jewish community, working for communities outside the mainstream in the United States, the Ethiopian community in Israel, and for the recognition of Jewish communities in the developing world.