The Politics of Conversion

An in-depth look at the opposition to the proposed conversion bill followed by a story of coalition politics – the real antagonist in this continuing drama.

both from The Jerusalem Report:

Your People, My People

It’s been a long time since the North American Jewish community has been so united on an issue involving Israel. Just when it seemed that the Jewish community was at its most divided over the Obama Administration’s efforts – or pressure – to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the peace table, and just at a time when American Jews seem most split over their own responses to Israel’s activities in the territories, Israeli politicians managed to unite tens of thousands of American Jews from widely different political persuasions.

At the behest of more than a dozen established American Jewish religious and communal organizations, American Jews have written, en masse, letters and e-mails to Israeli officials imploring them to stop the proposed Conversion Bill and have spoken out more vocally than they have in a long time.

The legislation, introduced in mid-July by Knesset Member David Rotem, an Orthodox Jew who is a representative of the overwhelmingly secular, Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu, is ostensibly intended to alleviate the difficulties faced by more than an estimated 350,000 Russian immigrants, who made aliya as part of the Law of Return but who are not considered Jewish by halakha, Jewish law.

The proposed legislation will, for the first time, give the Chief Rabbinate legal authority over all conversions in Israel, thus invalidating the 2002 High Court ruling requiring the Interior Ministry to recognize conversions by all denominations performed in Israel or abroad. Furthermore, conversions will be recognized only if the convert “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halakha.” This, of course, refers to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox interpretations of halakha, excluding the Conservative and Reform communities and delegitimizing the 85 percent of Diaspora Jews who are non- Orthodox.

The bulk of the American Jewish community is adamantly against the bill. “American Jews, who see religious extremism as a huge concern everywhere, don’t understand how in a democratic country like Israel, you have a monopolistic religious establishment that is coercive,” says Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, head of the Union of Reform Judaism. “They ask why Israel doesn’t have religious pluralism and freedom.”

Conversion Politics

… “This,” former MK Roman Bronfman tells The Report, “is a government of ‘anti.’ It’s anti-peace, anti-gay, anti-everything. And Yisrael Beiteinu fits right in. The only thing it’s ‘for’ is itself.”

The Soviet-born Bronfman, 56, made aliya in 1980 and began his Israeli political career with the nowdefunct Yisrael B’aliya, a party for Russian immigrants founded in the late 1990s and led by the most famous of them all, Natan Sharansky …. Right now, Bronfman explains, “being for itself” means that Yisrael Beiteinu is seeking to ensure its continued viability should party leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, as police have recommended, for a litany of corruption charges that include suspected bribery, fraud, obstruction of justice and even money laundering.

“The interests behind the [Rotem] bill are political,” Bronfman insists. “Yisrael Beiteinu wants to solidify its relationship with potential coalition partners as a bargaining chip should Lieberman go down, because without him, the party loses its coalition clout. But conversion is not popular among olim because they’re generally secular, no matter what religion they are. And for those who seek it, the bill won’t be much help. It may even hurt. So it’s a bad bill.”