New Bill Would be “Disastrous to the Unity of the Jewish People”



Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem, who has proposed a piece of legislation dealing with conversion in Israel, met earlier this week with leaders of the North American Jewish community to discuss the bill’s possible ramifications. Following a series of discussions with Rotem in new York City, the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements together issued a joint statement expressing our disapproval of the bill and our concern about its potential ramifications.

The statement is after the jump. Read more about this bill in this story or this one, both from JTA, and in this op-ed by Rabbi Uri Regev, president of Hiddush, a group that advocates for religious freedom in Israel.

We are appreciative of the substantial amount of time MK David Rotem devoted to meetings with us, individually and collectively, during his visit to the United States to discuss the legislation he has sponsored in the Knesset dealing with conversion and the Law of Return. We also welcome Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Daniel Ayalon’s participation in many of our meetings.

It should, first, be emphasized that we deeply appreciate Mr. Rotem’s stated goal in advancing the legislation – to ameliorate the bottleneck in the conversion process that currently keeps as many as 350,000 thousand olim (immigrants) from the former Soviet Union from converting to Judaism. The laudable goal of attempting to hasten the process of conversion for these individuals – who currently serve in the Israeli army and contribute positively to Israeli society – is one that deserves widespread attention and support. Together, we thank MK Rotem for his efforts in addressing this crisis.

MK Rotem believes his proposed legislation would rapidly open the door to a faster conversion process. We respectfully disagree. Not only would this legislation fail to achieve his forecasted result, the collateral damage to the 85% of world Jewry who are not Orthodox (and perhaps others who are) would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people in a number of ways.

The bill threatens to alter the Law of Return and consolidate conversion power into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Both of these results could have devastating effects on the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry and thus on the broader unity of the Jewish people. Such concentration of power in favor of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry effectively negates the roles of the non-Orthodox movements both within Israel and abroad, sending the message that only the Orthodox have a place within our Homeland.

Specifically, the current formulations of Article 1 would legislate the role and status of the Chief Rabbinate in a way not previously written into law. Such legislation would turn back the clock on 20 years of hard-won accomplishments in the Israeli High Court and complicate future efforts to appeal to the Court, which has been the single mechanism to counter religious discrimination in Israel.

This bill returns us to the destructive “who is a Jew” question, that has previously threatened to divide World Jewry, as it does today. To explicitly connect conversion to a single religious stream, while making no mention of other streams of Judaism, is by definition to compromise and jeopardize the Law of Return, as it places the decision for “who is a Jew” in the hands of one group. Such an action is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded and relies, and would detrimentally affect the worldwide Jewish community.

Further compounding our concern is the fact that the bill mentions no alternative method of conversion via non-Orthodox streams. We – and more importantly, our Israeli colleagues and their lawyers – believe that this language, if adopted as written, would further marginalize and hamper the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel. This would be a tragic consequence as we offer vibrant religious alternatives to a nation of Jews religiously alienated by the increasingly extreme positions of a minority religious establishment. We firmly believe that any conversion legislation must explicitly address these concerns.

We are additionally troubled by language that provides that any person who entered Israel while ineligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return will remain ineligible following conversion. Though MK Rotem says this language exists to outlaw the possibility of illegal immigrants undergoing conversion solely to obtain Israeli citizenship and remain in the country, the reality is that this deeply troubling clause differentiates between those who are born Jewish and those who choose to be Jewish, amending the Law of Return to exclude those who have made a conscious decision to join the Jewish community. For 2,000 years, Judaism has treated Jews-by-choice the same as Jews-by-birth. We are taught “as soon as a convert emerges from the mikvah (ritual bath) she or he is Jewish for all purposes.” (Talmud, Yevamot 47b) We see no justification now for differentiating between groups of Jews or including an article with such severe ramifications in the framework of a law purportedly dealing with easing conversion procedures.

While we recognize the goals Mr. Rotem is working to achieve and deeply respect his efforts, we cannot lend our support to a bill that will have such devastating ramifications. This moment, when Israel faces a great many challenges, both at home and abroad, is no time to enact legislation that has the potential to divide the Jewish community or to alienate Diaspora Jewry.

Even as we expressed our concerns to Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon and MK Rotem, we also emphasized our steadfast love and commitment to the people and State of Israel. It is in this spirit of unity that we stand shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues in the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel and with one another. Indeed, it is our unconditional love for Israel as both a sovereign nation and a worldwide Jewish community that calls us to urge, in the strongest possible terms, upon MK Rotem, the Yisrael Beitenu party, and Prime Minister Netanyahu to withdraw this bill and introduce legislation that resolves the urgent problems of olim from the former Soviet Union without compromising either the core democratic values of the State or the Law of Return.

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Kate Bigam

About Kate Bigam

Kate Bigam is the URJ's Social Media and Community Manager. Prior to this, she served as a Congregational Representative for the URJ's East District and at the Religious Action Center as Press Secretary and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Kate is a native of Cuyahoga Falls, OH, and currently resides in Red Bank, N.J.

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