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July 21, 2010 4:17 pm

Conversion Conundrum

avatar by Dovid Efune

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Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman. Photo: Pete Souza & Roosewelt Pinheiro.

Israeli lawmakers are certainly no strangers to controversy, but when a contentious conversion bill gained steam this week with its approval in the Knesset law committee the tension was particularly high. The bill must now pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

Sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem, the bill is nuanced and complex. Here are some of the primary innovations in brief:

1.       Any rabbi who is or was on a district rabbinate in Israel, or was or is the chief rabbi of a city or town, will be able to convert any Israeli, regardless of place of residence. As opposed to the current situation where conversions must be carried out by special conversion courts.

2.       Conversions can be nullified only if the rabbinical court that conducted the conversion, determined that it took place under false pretenses, subject to the approval of the president of the National Rabbinic Court of Appeals.

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3.       Whereas now there is no law regarding conversion, only court resolutions, the bill would give the Chief Rabbinate legal authority over conversions in Israel, further cementing its control.

4.       The bill does not guarantee that rabbinates in Israel will recognize conversions performed overseas, and may allow for the reversal of a Supreme Court decision in 1988 that recognizes conversions conducted outside of Israel even by non- orthodox authorities.

The proposed change of the law has sparked nothing less than outrage, specifically from community leaders in the Diaspora who are concerned that they will be further marginalized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Following an angry letter from the Union of Reform Judaism, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, and Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement strongly opposing the bill, saying that it will “tear apart the Jewish people.”

However what may indeed be at stake is the very stability of Netanyahu’s government, as Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on the religious parties to leave the coalition in the event that the Prime Minister did not advance this bill, and Shas chairman Eli Yishai, a key Netanyahu coalition partner, declared that the absence of conversion law poses a danger to the Jewish people.

Netanyahu needs the support of the American Jewish community to help improve Israel’s standing with the current US administration and also needs, perhaps even more so, the compliance of his coalition partners to govern. Talk about a rock and a hard place!

With both sides making the most extreme of claims, let us set aside all political and religious considerations for a moment and attempt to make a sober assessment as to whether the bill advances or weakens the long term continuity of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

The key lies in having a look at the National Jewish Population Survey, last conducted in 2000 by the Jewish Federations of North America, one of the organizations that criticized the bill.

One of the more alarming conclusions of the survey was that out-marriage rates among Reform and Conservative Jews are remarkably high. With Conservative at 32% and Reform at 46%, the study shows that by the fourth generation, a Jewish reform community of 100 would be reduced to 10.

The study clearly shows that the blasé standards of Reform and secular Judaism is significantly contributing to the demise of Jewish life in America. Reform conversion practices that require limited levels of education and commitment, further increase the dilution of Jewish identity, and add to the acceleration of this saddening trend.

The Jewish character of the State of Israel is in enough trouble, with a bourgeoning Arab populace, Asian migrant workers, Russian immigrants who have little or no Jewish inclination, even including Neo Nazi groups and Africans making their way over the porous southern border with Egypt, over which Netanyahu also expressed concern this week.

Whereas in the United States the dilution of Jewish identity is a calamity of epic proportions, if allowed to foster in Israel it will mean the loss of a Jewish majority and the end of Israel as we know it.

Perhaps this bill will act to encourage potential converts in the United States to take their Judaism more seriously. But what is certain is that it is a step closer to ensuring that the Jewish integrity of Israel is more protected, fighting the tide of assimilation and out-marriage that has already ravaged American Jewry.

Obviously the physical safety of Israel is of great concern to all Diaspora Jews, after all even JStreet claims to be Pro-Israel. Perhaps if the bill was presented in this fashion, correctly representing what is really at stake here, American Jewish leadership would bow to the judgment of seasoned Israeli lawmakers and allow them to dutifully serve the electorate that has placed trust in them by electing them to office.

The Author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal and the GJCF and can be e-mailed at defune@gjcf.com

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