Only in Israel. On the day that the U.S. vice president arrived in Israel, reportedly to thwart Israel’s bombing of Iran, and following two days of intensive talks between Israel’s prime minister and President Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, the Israeli government almost fell ... because of a proposed bill about conversion to Judaism.
How could a conversion bill, which set out to marginally expand the list of rabbis who can perform conversions in Israel, set off a string of events that almost brought the government down? Though hard to imagine, the Israeli government coalition agreements include clauses that call for legislation to improve conversion in Israel. This week, such legislation was discussed in the Knesset law committee, and the proposed bill, which would be a first for the Jewish state, brought on a coalition crisis between the ultra-Orthodox and immigrant parties.
The chaos created by the proposed conversion bill highlights the fact that conversion has become the “threshold” issue for the Jewish world today. Demographics, religious extremism and the politics of power have all played a role in this basic shift in the Jewish agenda. In the past 18 months, the leadership of The Jewish Federations of North America has written letters to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asking him to engage the conversion issue. During the past year, the leadership of American Orthodoxy has engaged in seemingly endless negotiations with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to ensure that their conversions receive acceptance within the Israeli religious establishment. And when Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan gave his annual assessment of the Jewish world and Modern Orthodoxy some weeks ago from his pulpit in Manhattan, he focused on conversion.
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