July 20, 2010
The Israeli Conversion Bill: What it means and why everyone’s so mad
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Ariel Picard, director of the center for education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, speculated further on what motivated Rotem. “They call it ‘the Riskin law,’ ” Picard said, referring to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, the town in the West Bank where Rotem lives. “What he [Rotem] wants to do is give authority to his local rabbi, who is known to be lenient.” Riskin is from New York and has taken lenient positions on women’s halachic issues over the course of his career.
Today, the only conversions performed in Israel that the rabbinate recognizes are those overseen by one of the rabbinate’s own regional courts or one of the Special Rabbinic Courts set up to deal only with conversions. In 2009, 1,801 Russian olim converted in these courts — less than 1 percent of the total number targeted by Rotem. Under the proposed bill, current and former municipal rabbis and rabbis of local councils (like Riskin) could set up their own special rabbinical courts, provided that — and this phrasing is crucial — “the conversion is performed by the special court lawfully, following acceptance of the burden of the Torah and commandments as required by Jewish law.”
That last condition was, according to Jewish Federations of North America President and CEO Jerry Silverman, added just days before Rotem presented the bill to his committee. “What it’s saying is that the only conversions [the rabbinate] will accept is of a person absolutely committing to Orthodoxy,” Silverman said.
The clause led critics to question whether the bill could possibly do anything to achieve its first stated goal. “It was never going to help them,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said. She was speaking of the Israelis from the former Soviet Union, who are not likely to take on an Orthodox lifestyle. “The ultimate authority of those local courts rests right back with the same people. It rests right back with the office of the chief rabbi, with the people who have the same extreme views, and it is those extreme views that are preventing the Russians and others from being able to join the Jewish people.”
Silverman agrees. “The original intent of the bill was to ease conversion, and to especially ease conversion for the tens of thousands of Russian-speaking Jews who came to this country, and it’s a great concept. But all this new language,” Silverman said, referring to the emphasis on accordance with halachah — Jewish law — “changes what we think is the intent of the bill, and based on our experts, the bill will not achieve its goal, with this new language.”
The outcry against the Rotem bill has come primarily from religious non-Orthodox Israelis and the international Jewish community — and no part of the bill attracted more immediate attention from the Diaspora than the bill’s third article. It would amend the section of Israel’s 1952 Nationality Law that deals with the way a person can become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return.
The proposed amendment said that a non-Jew who comes to Israel and then subsequently converts, either in Israel or abroad, would not be eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Only if their conversion preceded their first visit to Israel would they qualify for citizenship.
But when Rotem introduced the bill to his committee, this article was not voted on, and Rotem said it would be removed from the draft. Had he not done so, Kariv explained, the amendment would have “disconnect[ed] for the first time the automatic connection between conversion and citizenship,” and would have “create[d] for the first time a distinction between Jews by choice and Jews by birth in Israel.”
Rotem has repeatedly said that his bill has nothing to do with Jews outside ofIsrael. But even with the third article excised, many Jewish leaders in the Diaspora disagree.
“Minister Rotem and the supporters of his bill don’t understand that this bill is as much about world Jewry as it is about Israel,” said Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He reported that more than 75,000 American Jews have sent letters and e-mails to Netanyahu urging him to act against the bill. “Anyone who’s a Reform Jew, a Conservative Jew, anyone going though a non-Orthodox conversion and has children, wants to make aliyah or wants to live in Israel, is going to be looked at differently if this bill gets passed,” Sanderson said.