Jewish leaders oppose conversion bill

E.B. Solomon reports for the Jerusalem Post on how suggestions from the Israel Beiteinu party may "alienate Diaspora Jewry", but Conservative leaders fight against the proposed legislation

NEW YORK – North American Jewish leaders remained firm in their opposition to a conversion bill being advanced by Israel Beiteinu, following a series of meetings with Israeli officials in New York.

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon (pictured left) and MK David Rotem, both from Israel Beiteinu, traveled to New York last week to meet with Jewish leaders and sought to ease concerns of those opposed to the bill, which would give the authority to perform conversions to municipal and regional rabbis. Articles subsequently added to the legislation could limit the rights of some converts to make aliya.

In a joint statement, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish leaders outlined their opposition to legislation that “has the potential to divide the Jewish community or to alienate Diaspora Jewry.”

They urged, “in the strongest possible terms,” that Rotem, Israel Beiteinu and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu withdraw the bill.

Ahead of the trip, Ayalon and Rotem “decided to meet with leaders of different Jewish movements and explain that their status will not be changed,” Ayalon said last week.

The Jewish Federations of North America called on the Israeli government last month “to enter into dialogue with Diaspora Jews before making any proposed changes to the Law of Return.”

But following a series of meetings with individual denominations, and larger group meetings, US Jewish officials said they appreciated the dialogue but still opposed the bill. In the statement, Jewish leaders emphasized their support for Rotem’s goal to advance legislation that would ease conversion for some 350,000 Russian olim who are not recognized as Jews.

Participants said the meetings were frank, and both sides took advantage of the opportunity to share their perspective.

“We are unified in our opposition to this,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive president and CEO of United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

“We did not back down, nor did he, from what our perspectives were,” Wernick told The Jerusalem Post on Friday. “But it was a dialogue, a conversation.”

He said Jewish leaders are watching the bill carefully. “I suppose we’re going to measure the success of this meeting based on what happens with this,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

In the statement, Jewish leaders outlined several concerns with the proposed legislation: It would consolidate conversion authority with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and, through Article 1, legislate the role and status of the Rabbinate. Further, they say, the bill does not mention non-Orthodox conversion methods, thereby marginalizing the Masorti (Conservative) and Reform movements.

“MK Rotem believes his proposed legislation would rapidly open the door to a faster conversion process. We respectfully disagree,” the statement read. “Not only would this legislation fail to achieve his forecasted result, the collateral damage to the 85% of world Jewry who are not Orthodox (and perhaps others who are) would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people in a number of ways.”

They said the bill thrusts Israel back into the destructive “Who is a Jew?” debate “that has previously threatened to divide world Jewry, as it does today.”

In addition, they are troubled by language that indicates people who enter Israel and then convert could still be ineligible for citizenship under the Law of Return.

“To explicitly connect conversion to a single religious stream, while making no mention of other streams of Judaism, is by definition to compromise and jeopardize the Law of Return,” the statement read.
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2 May 2010
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