I returned from Israel last Friday. One of my last visits there was at Kibbutz Erez, contiguous to the Gaza border, and the target of many rocket attacks. We have helped the kibbutz with its security and welfare: bomb shelter renovations, safe-rooms, and a medical clinic, among other initiatives.
As I was departing, I greeted the former general manager who had accepted a new position near Kiryat Gat. I asked him if he minded the extra “shlep.” He stood puzzled. He needed me to translate this word — a Yiddishism unknown to many Israelis.
I wish this was the only cultural divide between us. The issue of conversion, the Law of Return, and associated items are foreign to most Israelis. Yes, they care about the haredim or fervently Orthodox, and their stranglehold on politics and governmental decisions. But critics of the haredim are largely the “silent majority.”
Conversion, particularly as it affects the Law of Return, affects all Jews, converts, and potential converts. I have been actively involved in the issue since participating in a lobbying mission to Israel in 1988 led by then San Francisco Mayor, now California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a convert.
But unfortunately, Israel is facing an internal “ticking bomb.” Among the one million Israeli immigrants who arrived through Operation Exodus, over 300,000 are not Jewish according to Halacha, or Jewish law: They are neither the children of a Jewish mother nor have they converted to Judaism themselves. Because the Law of Return extends citizenship to an individual with even a single Jewish grandparent, thousands of them serve in the IDF. Many of these soldiers have lost their lives but cannot be buried in Jewish cemeteries. It is urgent that we try to convert as many of them in as accessible a manner as possible. Many Orthodox rabbis believe that klal Yisrael and service to the nation should be considered, using less rigid but nonetheless halachic standards.
There has been success. Many thousands have been converted, including IDF soldiers who have been participating in educational seminars via the Nativ Program, run by the Jewish Agency and funded in part by UJA. Yet thousands of these conversions — including those authorized by Rabbi Chayim Druckman, an Orthodox luminary working through the Prime Minister’s Office — were retroactively disqualified by more rigid Orthodox authorities months if not years later. Thankfully, this was reversed by the courts.
Can you imagine the psychological damage done to converts by these more rigid Orthodox authorities? Many of their non-converted relatives want nothing to do with an institution acting in this insensitive manner. This is not the rabbinate envisioned by Rabbi Abraham Kook, a passionate defender of Zionism and klal Yisrael. The Chief Rabbinate has moved far to the right and is out of touch with most Israelis.
Now we have the Rotem Conversion Bill, which was voted out of the Knesset’s Legal Committee by a 5-4 vote and was awaiting a full Knesset vote, perhaps this week. This bill is flawed and dangerous for the following reasons:
• It will deter conversions by the Russians for whom it’s intended because it would give for the first time a legal monopoly to the Chief Rabbinate for all conversions, including by municipal rabbis throughout Israel. The Chief Rabbinate does not have the confidence of many prospective converts as noted above.
• It would require each convert to officially accept an Orthodox commitment to the mitzvot. This would be wonderful, but it’s totally unrealistic for Russians who have been in Israel over a decade, pursuing their own lifestyles. Would the Chief Rabbinate want massive, institutional lying? Should not the fact that virtually all their IDF-age young adults are willing to give up their lives for Israel be given consideration?
• In an effort to prevent conversions by foreign workers taking advantage of Israel’s generous social welfare benefits, the Rotem Bill has ambiguous language that may affect the eligibility of non-Orthodox converts in the Diaspora under the Law of Return. It’s still unclear whether this clause is still in the bill. But the damage to our unity has already been done.
Israel is the Jewish state and center for the Jewish people. If any law, whether directly or symbolically, threatens to delegitimize the religious identification of Jews, it threatens the social and political fabric of the Jewish people. This is particularly important as Israel faces the external threat of Iran and political isolation through anti-Semitism, petro-politics, the boycott and divestment movements, and the human rights hypocrisy that spawned the Goldstone Report and the Gaza “humanitarian” flotillas. Jews of all religious and secular stripes walk the halls of Washington, state houses, media, campuses, and elsewhere to state the justness of Israel’s cause. To sow there seeds of disunity and potential alienation is self-destructive for Israel.
The prime minister, other ministers, Jewish federations, religious movements, and the Jewish Agency, led by Natan Sharansky, understand all these issues. They were promised by David Rotem and his colleagues that no bill would be proffered without consultation by all parties. The goal was to craft legislation that will address the need for massive conversions, but without alienating world Jewry. This was not done. Rotem and his colleagues did not keep their word.
That’s why our national body, Jewish Federations of North America, led by Jerry Silverman, has engaged in an intensive lobbying and media effort with partners of all religious persuasions to kill the Rotem bill. On July 14, Amir Shacham — our MetroWest Israel director and a skilled lobbyist — and I joined our colleagues in working the halls of Knesset and its cafeteria, lobbying 35 members of Knesset.
We’re making progress, but we need to put constant pressure on the Knesset and the prime minister. The JFNA, the various religious streams, and others will be lobbying the Knesset this week, before it breaks for summer recess.
Last Tuesday, I testified before a Knesset subcommittee. I told them that when I saw the logo for “Knesset Yisrael” in front of me, I didn’t want a hyphen before my name, as in “Jewish-American.” I wanted to be part of Yisrael unfiltered by denomination, ethnic background, or partisan politics. After all, we all entered Eretz Yisrael as one people.
With your help, we will preserve that unity. Please communicate to the Knesset and the prime minister to kill the Rotem Bill.
When we have a rendezvous with history, be on time!