Conservative and Reform Jews in the U.S. have expressed concerns about a conversion bill recently discussed in the Israeli Knesset that could erode the legitimacy of conversions performed by them.
Fearing that the bill could create a rift in the Jewish world and affect political support for Israel among North American Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he opposed it in its current form (Associated Press, July 18). The bill will now be frozen for six months, in the hope that it can be redrafted in a form more acceptable to non-Orthodox Jews (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 23). It is not the first time that issues related to the dominance of Orthodox Judaism in Israeli religious life have led to tensions with American Judaism, where 85 percent of the Jews are not affiliated with Orthodox Judaism.
Ironically, the bill was meant to make conversions easier, in consideration of the huge number of Israelis of Russian extraction who immigrated since the 1990s and are not Jews according to Jewish law (which states that one is Jewish by virtue of having a Jewish mother). District and municipal rabbis in Israel would have greater authority to perform conversions of Israelis, regardless of the place of residence of the convert, while this is currently a complicated matter with special conversion courts and curricular requirements (classes, exams, pledges to be religiously observant), writes Uriel Heilman in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report (April 28).
But the bill also consolidates the control of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate and does not guarantee that conversions performed overseas, especially by non-Orthodox Jews, would be recognized: this might put into question the eligibility of some under the Law of Return. The fact that the Rabbinate retroactively annulled thousands of conversions performed by religious Zionist rabbis two years ago brings no comfort to opponents of the bill, notes Yehuadah Mirsky (Jewish Ideas Daily, July 26).
Non-Orthodox Jewish movements in the U.S. feel that the legislation would revive the debate over who is a Jew and undermine progresses made through the Israeli Supreme Court on the legitimacy of nonOrthodox groups, whose converts are considered to be Jewish under the Law of Return (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 30). The Reform movement in the UK has also warned its members that the bill could lead to “losing recognition in Israel of Reform and other non-Orthodox conversions for ever” (Jewish Chronicle, July 22).
Whatever the fate of the bill, discussions on the role of Orthodox Judaism in Israel and the status of non-Orthodox Jewish movements will continue. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, expressed his wish to see the religious monopoly in Israel “overthrown for a free market society,” but admitted that this would not happen in the shorter term, reports Jordana Horn in the Jerusalem Post (July 22).