By Rabbi Josh Weinberg December 18 2020 – ג’ טבת תשפ”א
“Who is a Jew” has been a thorny and controversial question since the adoption of the 1950 Israeli Law of Return – which states that every Jew has the right to immigrate to Israel -. Beyond the definition of “Who is a Jew,” the question is really about who has the authority to determine and decide “Who is a Jew.” For those born into the Jewish people, simple proof is required. A letter from a rabbi is usually sufficient. For those who convert to Judaism, it is a thornier challenge.
The question of who can oversee and officiate at conversions to Judaism in the State of Israel has, in the past, sparked coalition crises as ultra-Orthodox parties strove to keep the practice confined to state bodies under their control. The current situation affirms that anyone who converts to Judaism outside the State of Israel under the auspices of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, or Renewal religious streams will be considered Jewish under Israel’s Law of Return.
However, within the State of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate, which determines who can marry in a Jewish ceremony in Israel and other matters relating to personal status, does not accept non-Orthodox conversions. As the influence of far-right religious elements has increased over the Israeli rabbinate, Israeli Orthodoxy now rejects many conversions performed even by Orthodox rabbis abroad.
This week, conversion may once again become a political football. What is immediately at stake is the recognition of Non-Orthodox conversions in Israel, but this has far-reaching implications that could potentially threaten conversions in North America, and around the world, as not being accepted in Israel.
According to Israeli law, the 2020 National Budget must be approved by December 23, 2020. If there is no compromise and the budget does not pass, the Knesset automatically will be dispersed, and Israel will hold its fourth election in two years. Unconnected to the budget issue, the Blue and White Party supported a proposal by the Knesset opposition parties to disband the Knesset thereby increasing the pressure to reach a compromise. Negotiations are currently taking place secretly and quietly to reach a compromise between Likud and Blue and White in order to avoid another election and risk losing the current power structure.
Adding to the pressure was the announcement by Likud MK Gideon Saar, a long-time internal Netanyahu rival, that he will lead a new political party and pose a formidable threat to the Prime Minister. Recent polls show a favorable outcome for his electoral potential (as many as 21-22 seats) and serve as a motivating factor for both Likud and Blue and White to avoid elections. With this in mind, a budget compromise could be a very realistic possibility.
As the deadline steadily approaches, this increased pressure provides an opening for the Haredi political parties to demand that the budget compromises include support for a conversion law that stipulates that only conversions performed within the Orthodox state conversion system will be recognized as legitimate in Israel. Despite the fact that our Reform movement petitioned the Supreme Court to rule that the State must recognize non-Orthodox conversions for the purposes of the Law of Return, if such a compromise results in a new conversion law, that would lead the Supreme Court to delay a final decision on our petition in deference to the legislative process.
In a recent letter to the Haredi factions, zealous and extremist right-wing MK Betzalel Smotrich of the Yamina party said:
“… the State must inform the High Court that it intends to immediately enact the State Conversion Law, which will stipulate that only conversions carried out by the State conversion system operating according to Din Torah (Orthodox) will be recognized in Israel. I ask you to act without delay, to promote the State Conversion Law. A decisive answer in this spirit must be submitted to the court on time.”
The tangible threat here is that passing such a law would drive a potentially insurmountable wedge between Israel and Diaspora communities and would deal a severe blow to the standing of non-Orthodox religious streams in Israel.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, seventeen percent of American Jews were raised in another religion and converted to Judaism. Many of those Jews affiliate with the Reform movement. This means that almost a million American Jews were not born Jewish and are raising a generation of committed Jewish children. Many of these Jews would not be recognized as Jewish by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and could risk being barred from marriage and/or burial in the State of Israel. The efforts of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate to push these Jews outside the Jewish People could result in a substantial division of the Jewish People in Israel and around the world.
Dr. Shuki Friedman, Director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State said:
“The Interior Minister’s attempt to bypass the High Court ruling and further consolidate the rabbinate monopoly in the area of conversion would violate the balance created and also result in another explosion between the State of Israel and Diaspora.”
We have been down this road before, a number of times in the past two decades. Yet again, we cannot allow the question of “Who is a Jew” to be a political football, or to be answered by a few who claim exclusive authority to determine Jewish status. We must work towards unity and acceptance, towards a broadening of the Jewish tent, and recognition that there are many ways to be Jewish and many entrances to holiness. Not only is it in our short-term and long-term interest and the interests of the Jewish people to work to be inclusive, but now is the time to convey the message that our tent has multiple entrances. This is not about lowering standards for conversion or providing an opening for those who have ill-intentions.
This is about some immigrants to Israel for whom if their conversion is not recognized, they will be relegated to the status of temporary resident, every year having to face the fear that they might be forced to leave the country.
This is about saying that there are, and always have been, many ways to be Jewish and many approaches to being religious. Judaism and Jewish life are not monolithic. While we hope this does not come to fruition, it is important for us as Reform Jews, to follow this issue closely and be ready for action when the time requires it.