The Conversion Stalemate May Be a Gift

by Natan Sharansky

The dust is starting to settle over the latest conversion skirmish.

The Knesset has gone into its summer hibernation, and the conversion debate that rocked the Jewish world over the past two weeks has gone quiet as well.

Looking back, perhaps it is now time to thank MK David Rotem, the initiator of the bill that sparked the controversy.

First, we should thank him for the bill itself, which in its original version went a long way toward bringing comfort and legal remedy to hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Israelis who may wish to become part of the Jewish people.

Indeed, we fervently hope that he will continue to advance the bill’s original intent, without the problematic amendments that transformed it into an attempt to settle the “Who is a Jew” controversy.

But there is yet another reason to thank MK Rotem. His surprise introduction of the bill in the Knesset Law Committee on July 12 launched a remarkable and instructive battle of wills between Israeli lawmakers and some American Jewish leaders, even if it ended as it always has: in a stalemate.

Time and again the Jewish people has revisited the conversion confrontation in recent decades, and each time the argument is the same. It is a debate between those who want to codify in legislation that Israel will recognize one universal standard of conversion and those who wish to see Israel embrace a broader spectrum of religious practice.

Each side in this face-off has its own compelling and unique weapons: one side the strength of state institutions and legislation; the other direct access to Israeli leaders, public opinion of millions of Jews worldwide and the ability to petition the High Court of Justice for redress of grievances.

This time, each side entered the battle at the peak of its power. Rotem brought the bill to the Knesset at an almost ideal political moment and had every reason to believe he would succeed in pushing it through. Two of the major coalition partners, Israel Beiteinu and Shas, agreed to join forces in moving the bill forward. Together, they made up a huge bloc in a government that already enjoyed a strong majority in the Knesset. Rotem’s bill – at least in its original form – is even part of the coalition agreement.

So by creating “facts on the ground,” Rotem hoped to use his political advantage to force the bill into law, even over the angry objections of many Diaspora leaders. The bill’s easy passage through the Knesset Law Committee seemed to prove the efficacy of the moment.

But the other side, too, enjoyed a favorable political window. As Gabriella Shalev, outgoing ambassador to the UN, warned last week, the Jewish state is today “the most isolated, lonely country in the world,” and this constitutes its greatest strategic challenge. Israel is caught in a diplomatic and media tsunami of delegitimization and vilification that reaches every campus and every rights group, every church and every television set around the world. In this battle, world Jewry is our closest friend, our first and best line of defense.

While it fights against our common detractors, no responsible Israeli leader can afford to delegitimize its Jewishness.

As each side of the conversion debate brought its own views to the table, it discovered how little it knows about the other. Indeed, for the large numbers of Diaspora leaders and dozens of MKs who participated in last week’s marathon meetings and discussions, it was the first time they had faced each other and held serious discussions on this issue.

So it is fortunate for all that this round of the confrontation yielded no clear victor.

The political impasse offers a unique opportunity for a dialogue in which each side can move past its earlier erroneous assumptions about the other and begin to grapple sincerely with the deep logic of the interlocuter’s view.

One side of the debate is asking a fair question: Why can’t Israel be more like America? Why are state institutions and politicians given power over spiritual matters? But Israel is not America. In its relationship with the Jewish world, Israel sees itself as the state of all Jews, a principle expressed most prominently in the Law of Return, a Knesset law from 1950 that grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wants it.

This simple fact – that any Jew can receive Israeli citizenship and that millions have done so – means that Israeli officials must have some way of determining who is eligible for citizenship.

Therefore it is the civil magistrates who must deal with a question that might be viewed as religious under other conditions – who is Jewish and who is not.

It is this unavoidable result of statehood – and not simply, as is commonly assumed, haredi pressure or political blackmail – that leads some Israeli leaders to repeatedly try to establish a universal benchmark for conversion.

Then there is the other side, which asks: Why do these Diaspora Jews interfere in our conversion legislation? We don’t interfere in their conversions.

By the same principle articulated before – the Jewish state is the state of all Jews – every Jewish community should be able to feel that Israel is its home too. That is why Israel cannot pass legislation that is viewed by these communities as undermining this connection.

So we are caught in a complex dilemma.

The same ideal requires, on the one hand, a single universal standard for who is a Jew, and on the other hand, that Israel remain open and committed to the global Jewish community in all its diversity.

This tension is unavoidable. It is inherent in Jewish statehood and in the fact that Jews uniquely constitute both a nation and a religion. And if either side wins, both sides lose – because we lose the Israel we all want, the unique country that is a homeland for all Jews, wherever and however they may live.

In the last two weeks, both sides of this debate discovered that they cannot resolve their differences by force. The fact that they have now agreed to a moratorium on unilateral actions – whether legislation in the Knesset or petitions to the High Court – shows that they have gained a new understanding of each other. Perhaps the intense encounter during the latest political wrangling has given each one a better appreciation of the sincerity on the other side.

The threats that face the Jewish people are far too great to be overcome by a divided polity. In the larger battle to guarantee our shared future, we must all understand that we have no greater ally than each other.

We must start listening to each other, and the sooner the better.

Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.