Proposed Bill could redefine who is a Jew in Israel

Charles Lewis – July 23, 2010 – National Post


Ultra-Orthodox Jews at an ancient Roman natural spring on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Mar. 28, 2010. David Silverman/Getty Images




For more than 60 years, Jews around the world have cherished their right to return to Israel. Now the “law of return” is in danger of becoming a law of exclusion. Last week, a Knesset committee approved a draft bill that would narrowly define Judaism according to a specific ultra-Orthodox strand.

Critics say the change could prevent thousands of Jewish converts, and their children, from being granted citizenship because the rabbinical authorities in Israel do not recognize Reform and Conservative conversions as authentically Jewish. In fact, even some Orthodox converts could be excluded if the Israeli religious authorities do not consider their conversions Orthodox enough.

This week Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, said he would not support the bill. His decision came after intense lobbying from outside Israel.

When the modern state of Israel was created in 1948, Jews living in an often hostile world knew they could always find a haven in their ancestral land.

After centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating in the catastrophe of the Holocaust, Israel made it clear all Jews would always be welcome and granted automatic citizenship.

There was no stipulation whether the person was Jewish by birth or conversion — and nor did it matter where or how the conversion took place. A Jew was a Jew and the door was open.

David Rotem, a member of the Knesset and the bill’s sponsor, has said it is intended to help complete the conversion of Russian Jews, Israel’s largest immigrant group, so they could fully take part in Jewish ritual life — and it would not affect the law of return. Supporters say it would also create a common religiosity among Jews.

But these arguments are not reassuring to critics, especially those in North America.

“It would be the first time that you have a legislative authority for matters of Jewish identity being given to a single narrow religious authority,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the leading Conservative Jewish group in the United States.

“That’s never happened in Jewish history,” added the rabbi, who was in Jerusalem this week to lobby against the proposed legislation.

Numbers of converts worldwide are difficult to come by but a study in 2001 found 170,000 converts out of a Jewish population of 5.5 million in the United States.

Judaism has always had a biological component in that the religion passes from mother to child. Given the number of invasions ancient Israel suffered, and the incidence of rape, there was not always a way to determine paternity with certainty, so maternity became the standard.

But within that there was flexibility. Anyone could join the faith after instruction. And so the children of a female convert would be considered Jewish.

In the Bible, Ruth who was a Moabite, decided to stay with her Jewish mother-in-law and become a Jew by choice.

“She made a conversion of the heart,” said Rabbi Erin Polonsky, a pastor at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue in Toronto.

“She decided the Jewish people were her people and the Jewish God her God. I’m not sure she would be accepted by the ultra-orthodox rabbis of today.”

Rabbi Polonsky said the new bill has the potential to be divisive on many levels, including the psychological message that Israel would send to Jews living abroad.

“I’m incredibly worried for my converts and their ability to operate as Jews in the world. But if this should go through, it would mark a huge break between Israel and the Jewish diaspora,” she said.

“I believe there is a variety of approaches to Judaism that are all expressions of how to be Jewish. But if this law is passed it would be the state saying to Jews around the world that you’re not good enough in our eyes.”

For American and Canadian Jews, who are mainly not ultra-orthodox, it is considered a denigration of their form of Judaism, said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, vice-president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which represents Reform Jews.

He said the situation in Israel would be like Christian fundamentalists being given the right to decide who is worthy of U.S. citizenship.

“At a time when Israel needs all the friends it can get, to now try to disenfranchise a large swath of Jews around the world is idiotic,” he said.

Observers of Israeli culture say it seems strange from the outside, then, that a small minority of fundamentalist rabbis can hold sway over a population that is more secular than religious and alienate staunch Jewish supporters who live outside Israel, especially Canadian and American Jews.

Part of the reason this exists today is historical: the original Zionist settlers were more interested in a secular state and carving out a haven for refugees; they were happy to leave religious affairs to the ultra-orthodox sect.

Over time, the ultra-orthodox population has grown tremendously through higher-than-average birthrates and the groups have formed political parties that now hold the balance of power in the Knesset.

“Israel is complicated; it’s Western and Middle Eastern and that’s part of the tension of Israeli life,” said Rabbi Wernick.

“The secular majority of Israel has bought into this image of a fundamentalist orthodoxy as being authentic. But they ended up giving them too much power without really being conscious of the power.”

In Israel the only brand of Judaism that is officially recognized for the purposes of ritual is the ultra-orthodox stream. It means many Israeli citizens must leave the country to marry and a soldier whose Jewishness has not been sanctioned could be denied a Jewish funeral, even if killed in combat.

“It’s a pretty common thought that it’s a good thing Israel has so many external enemies because if they didn’t there would be a civil war,” said Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. “And the idea of civil war is not far below the surface when it comes to the impasse between the orthodox and the liberals.”

Added Rabbi Polonsky, “As a rabbi I am accepted everywhere in the world, except in Israel. The only place I can’t be a rabbi is in a Jewish state.”

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