Tags: Jews | Israel | conversion | bill

US Jews Angry at Israeli Conversion Bill

Monday, 10 May 2010 09:33 PM EDT

JERUSALEM - Jewry’s struggle against the Conversion Bill reached new heights as the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) headed an offensive against the proposed legislation in a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Signed by the heads of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the letter, which reached Netanyahu’s office on Monday, urged him to oppose “this dangerous bill” that would be “disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people.”

The JFNA is the most inclusive institution of Jewish life in North America, representing 157 federations and 400 smaller network communities. It does not normally get involved in matters of Israeli policy.

Monday’s letter echoed a more benign announcement released by the Jewish American liberal groups at the beginning of the month, outlining their opposition to legislation that “has the potential to divide the Jewish community or to alienate Diaspora Jewry.” That announcement followed meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and the bill’s sponsor, MK David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu).

Ayalon and Rotem had travelled to the US in the wake of the JFNA’s appeal to the Israeli government “to enter into dialogue with Diaspora Jews before making any proposed changes to the Law of Return.” Ayalon and Rotem aimed to convince Jewish leaders there that the bill would not impact their status or the rights of US converts to immigrate to Israel.

“We were left with profound misgivings about the proposed Conversion Law,” Monday’s letter reads. “It is our strong belief... that this proposed legislation would not only fail to achieve [Rotem’s forecasted result of easing conversion for thousands of olim from the former Soviet Union], but will dangerously alter the Law of Return by consolidating conversion power in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate in ways that would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people, [by] explicitly [connecting] conversion to a single religious stream. It does not recognize conversion via the streams that represent 85% of Diaspora Jewry. This message is inconsistent with the democratic ideals on which the State of Israel was founded.”

Moreover, the letter continues, “it will undoubtedly alienate many North American Jews from Israel, widening an already precarious and growing rift that should concern us all... We are fully committed to a secure Israel... Yet, the proposed conversion law offends with its disregard for any religious authority outside the Chief Rabbinate. As strongly as we support Israel, we oppose this law.

“Indeed, it is our very unwavering commitment to Israel as both a sovereign nation and a worldwide Jewish community that compels us to urge you, in the strongest terms, to oppose this dangerous bill, and we encourage you to use your influence with your coalition partners to withdraw this bill,” it says.

Asked what prompted his organization to issue such an unequivocal letter, JFNA communications director Dani Wassner told The Jerusalem Post that “the Law of Return is perhaps the one Israeli law where Diaspora Jewry can be considered constituents. It is a law that directly affects us. In addition, this is an issue that is extremely close to the heart of North American Jewry, and our movement would be remiss if we did not voice our concerns.”

Wassner added, “Our letter to Netanyahu simply echoed the concerns we’ve made to Knesset members – including Ayalon in New York last week – that we continue to be part of this important dialogue and that this is a matter of utmost concern for Jews everywhere. Right now we are concerned that this bill could suddenly be raised again, and we think it is imperative that a full discussion of the issues takes place, in consultation with Diaspora Jewry.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said Monday that as the letter had been received only that day, it would be inappropriate to offer a public comment on it before sending a response to the JFNA.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, called the letter “testimony to the strong bond between Reform and Conservative Judaism, and the State of Israel and its citizens” and “evidence of the true concern that aggressive, unilateral legislation on conversions will bring about feelings of alienation and insult among millions of Jews in the Diaspora.”

Kariv added, “We hope that the prime minister will hear the appeal of the Jewish leadership in the US, and clarify in his answer that he prefers the unity of the people over short-term coalition considerations.”

Zohar Hess, executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, said that “the prime minister must listen carefully to the voices emanating from North American Jewry. Reform and conservative Jews are the core leadership of all the organizations aiding Israel – AIPAC, Hadassah, the Jewish Federations. These are not just the best of Israel’s friends, they are real family. It is inconceivable that one day we ask their help, and the next – we spit in their faces. Netanyahu must declare that he is removing the conversion bill in its current form from the public agenda.”

But the bill’s proponents seemed unfazed by the new scope of harsh opposition.

“The conversion bill is meant to deal with a specific problem, which is the situation of some 350,000 non-Jews living here, many of whom would like to convert, serve in the army, and are loyal to the state,” Ayalon told the Post on Monday.

“We don’t want a situation where things could become more problematic; in the next generation or so, the numbers could rise significantly to one million or more,” he went on.

“We believe that the interests of Israel as a whole do coincide with those of Jews worldwide,” Ayalon added. “We would like to continue the dialogue with our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, and we will continue engaging with them on this and a number of other issues.”

Rotem mused to the Post that “when everybody objects to a law, it means that it’s a good one.” He noted the atypical grouping of liberal Jewish congregations with local haredi parties in opposition to the bill.

“My responsibility is to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who want to convert to Judaism without unnecessary difficulties,” he said, and reiterated that “nothing in the law will harm the Jewish communities in the US in any way. The connection between Israel and US Jewry is as important to me as it is to them, but has no pertinence to this law.”

Rotem asserted that “recognizing their conversions would just create other problems.”

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JERUSALEM - Jewry’s struggle against the Conversion Bill reached new heights as the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) headed an offensive against the proposed legislation in a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Monday, 10 May 2010 09:33 PM
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