Conversion Bill Debate evidence of American Jews’ Increasing Discontent with Israel

In July, an Israeli parliamentary committee advanced a bill that would give the chief rabbinate, the religious authority in Israel run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, the sole power to decide which conversions to Judaism are accepted. The bill overturns an Israeli Supreme Court decision ensuring eligibility for Israeli citizenship by Jews converted by rabbis from all branches of Judaism.

"Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, which have been battling for years for more rights in Israel, saw the committee vote as a threat to their efforts to strengthen their legitimacy in Israel," reported The Washington Post on July 13. "The chief rabbinate already holds a monopoly on such rituals as marriage and divorce."

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, declared: "It sets us back 20 years in terms of the advances that were made. The practical implication of this bill is one that we are very, very concerned and angry about. The bill delegitimizes most of North American Jewry." Beyond this, he said, it brings back the question of "who has the authority to determine anyone’s Jewish identity."

In an op-ed in the July 15 New York Times titled "The Diaspora Need Not Apply," Alana Newhouse, editor of Tablet Magazine, which covers Jewish life and culture, noted that, "If passed, this legislation would place authority over all Jewish births, marriages and deaths–”and, through them, the fundamental question of Jewish identity–”in the hands of a small group of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, rabbis. The problem is not simply that some of these rabbinical functionaries, who are paid by the state and courted by politicians, are demonstrably corrupt. Rather, it is that the beliefs of a tiny minority of the world’s Jews are on the verge of becoming the Israeli government’s definition of Judaism for all Jews….

"If this bill passes," Newhouse warned, "future historians will inevitably wonder why…Israel chose to tell 85 percent of the Jewish diaspora that their rabbis weren’t rabbis and their religious practices were a sham, the conversions of their parents and spouses were invalid, their marriages weren’t legal under Jewish law, and their progeny were a tribe of bastards unfit to marry other Jews."

"The bill delegitimizes most of North American Jewry."

Jewish U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) circulated a letter asking fellow American Jewish lawmakers to join him in condemning the controversial Israeli measure. Among those signing were Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Carl Levin (D-MI) and Ben Cardin (D-MD). The Jewish Federation of North America expressed support for the Senate letter: "We welcome any expression of commitment from influential Jews to maintain the unity of the Jewish people and the dangers posed by this divisive legislation," said William Daroff, vice president for public policy.

As a result of the American Jewish opposition to the legislation, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that he would oppose the controversial bill, saying that it would "tear apart the Jewish people." He proposed a six-month moratorium, during which Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, would convene what some described as a "dialogue table." To date, however, there has been no visible progress toward the proposed deliberation.

Writing in her column in the Aug. 11 National Jewish Post and Opinion, Mary Hoffman asked: "So what happens if Israel…chooses to formally reject a sizeable portion of us? Jews have, historically, been a resilient and determined people, surviving in the face of all kinds of external threats. But internal threats? It’s frightening to consider the possibility that the rejection of the majority of Jewish converts (and, by extension, of the Jews who accept them) by a minority of Jews whose vision is tightly limited could become the Law of the Land of Return. I fear not only a possibly terminal rupture for the future of Israel in this but of Judaism itself."

Cautioned Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz, "What we are facing is an explosive global crisis over Jewish identity–”a huge, snowballing disaster that is ripping Israeli-Diaspora relations."

In the opinion of Rabbi Donald Hartman, president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, "This issue is a place where they [American Jews] can express the displeasure they might not be willing to state on the flotilla and other political matters. There is increasing discontent among American Jews with Israel."

For while Israel claims to be a Western-style democracy with religious freedom, its actions often tell a different story–”one which is increasingly disturbing to American Jews.

On July 12, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the women’s prayer group Women of the Wall (see May/June 2010 Washington Report, p. 44), was detained as she was leading about 150 worshippers from the Western Wall Plaza to Robinson’s Arch, the portion of the Wall where the group is permitted to read from the Torah.

Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was interrogated for five hours, fined the equivalant of $1,300 and placed under a restraining order that bars her from visiting the Western Wall for 30 days. She contends that she was acting within the law, under which women are not permitted to read from the Torah or to wear a prayer shawl as an outer garment within the Kotel (Western Wall) Plaza.

"We were not reading from the Torah," Hoffman told the July 23 Forward. "We were merely holding it on our way to Robinson Arch to complete the service."

Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was at the prayer service. "I was about two people away from Anat as she was pulled by the police–”quite forcefully, I might add," he said. "It was just heart-wrenching to watch a Jewish woman arrested on Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the Hebrew month) for holding a Torah in her prayer services. And it’s unfathomable that the police in the Jewish state will arrest a Jewish woman for that."

Kotel Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who has been leading a campaign to make the entire plaza gender segregated, said earlier this year that the women are being "provocative, trying to turn the Kotel into a place of controversy."

According to The Forward, "This turn of events has infuriated many American Jews, particularly those affiliated with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. The arrest happened on the very same day that the Knesset law committee passed the ‘Conversion Bill.’"

"We love Israel, and we support Israel," Rabbi Wernick stated, "but we’re reaching the boiling point in terms of the way our religious expression is allowed to be discriminated against because of the will of the ultra-Orthodox."

In a July 30 editorial, The Forward declared: "Why herald Israel as the only true democracy in the Middle East when a woman is thrown in jail for holding a Torah? Never mind the hurt feelings of a few liberals; Israel has a strategic imperative to behave as a modern, pluralistic state if it is to maintain the high ground in the ongoing global struggle against religious fanaticism."

Beyond the growing alienation of non-Orthodox Jews with Israel because of its denial of religious freedom to their expressions of Judaism, and to women, there is growing concern with, among other things, Israel’s role in Gaza.

Concerns Over Gaza

"If a people who so recently experienced such unspeakable inhumanities cannot understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions are inflicting, what hope is there for the rest of us?" asked Henry Siegman, director of the US/Middle East Project who, from 1978 to 1994, was national director of the American Jewish Congress.

Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Siegman related that, "Following Israel’s bloody interdiction of the Gaza Flotilla, I called a life-long friend in Israel to inquire about the mood of the country. My friend, an intellectual and a kind and generous man, has nevertheless long sided with Israeli hard-liners. Still, I was entirely unprepared for his response. He told me–”in a voice trembling with emotion–”that the world’s outpouring of condemnation of Israel is reminiscent of the dark period of the Hitler era. He told me that most everyone in Israel felt that way, with the exception of Meretz, a small Israeli pro-peace party. ‘But for all practical purposes,’ he said, ‘they are Arabs.’"

Both he and his friend, Siegman wrote, "experienced those dark Hitler years, having lived under Nazi occupation, as did so many of Israel’s Jewish citizens. I was therefore stunned by the analogy…It struck me that the invocation of the Hitler era was actually a frighteningly and apt and searing analogy, although not the one my friend intended. A million and a half civilians have been forced to live in an open-air prison in inhuman conditions for over three years now, but unlike the Hitler years, they are not Jews but Palestinians. Their jailers, incredibly, are survivors of the Holocaust, or their descendants. Of course, the inmates of Gaza are not destined for gas chambers, as the Jews were, but they have been reduced to a debased and hopeless existence."

Expressing a view being heard more and more among thoughtful American Jewish observers, Siegman concluded: "Who would have believed that an Israeli government and its Jewish citizens would seek to demonize and shut down Israeli human rights organizations for their lack of ‘patriotism,’ and dismiss fellow Jews who criticized the assault on the Gaza Flotilla as ‘Arabs’ pregnant with all the hateful connotations that word has acquired in Israel, not unlike Germans who branded fellow citizens who spoke up for Jews as ‘Juden’? The German White Rose activists, mostly students from the University of Munich, who dared to condemn the German persecution of the Jews (well before the concentration camp exterminations began), were also considered ‘traitors’ by their fellow Germans who did not mourn the beheading of these activists by the Gestapo…If a people who so recently experienced on its own flesh such unspeakable inhumanities cannot muster the moral imagination to understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions–”and even its legitimate security concerns–”are inflicting on another people, what hope is there for the rest of us?"