Religious politics

Religious politics

Here we are, at the brink of Tisha B’Av, confronted by a new threat to Jewish unity. On Monday, the Knesset law committee passed a controversial bill that effectively would give control of conversions – in Israel – to the Chief Rabbinate.

Sponsored by David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, whose constituents are mainly immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the bill is being touted, and rightly, as a humanitarian measure to ease conversion – and hence marriage – for non-Jews from that region. For example, it limits the power to overturn a conversion to the rabbinical court that conducted it in the first place, thereby avoiding the kind of crisis that erupted more than two years ago when the Supreme Rabbinical Court overturned tens of thousands of conversions performed by Religious Zionist rabbis such as Rabbi Haim Druckman. Thus, the bill does allow a measure of protection to those immigrants who seem to need it.

On the other hand, several key aspects of the proposed new law are seen as threatening to conversions done in the diaspora, whether performed by Orthodox rabbis who do not follow guidelines demanded by the Chief Rabbinate, or by non-Orthodox rabbis. At present, conversions done outside Israel qualify an oleh for citizenship under the Law of Return. The legislation would place a great deal of power in the hands of the chief rabbinate, and would remove the power Israel’s Supreme Court now has to rule on issues involving conversions.

As the American Jewish Committee noted, “If passed, the bill could give the Chief Rabbinate in Israel the power to decide which conversions are accepted. This would overturn an Israeli Supreme Court decision, ruling that all Jews converted by rabbis from all streams of Judaism are eligible for Israeli citizenship.”

Also, as Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency and himself an ̩migr̩ from the gone but not forgotten USSR, seems to have recognized, the benefits to one community are outweighed by the harm it may do to the wider Jewish community. Sharansky is among those who feel the proposed law mischievously marginalizes diaspora Jews Рwhose passion and political support Israel continues to need.

“We cannot divide the Jewish people with legislation which many in the Jewish world view as defining them as second-class Jews,” Sharansky said, according to Ynet.

“We are at the beginning of the month of Av,” he added, “the time when the Temple was destroyed because the Jewish people were busy with internal fighting instead of dealing with real dangers posed by their enemies. Jews abroad are the most loyal supporters of Israel, and stand at the forefront of the fight for Israel’s image around the world.”