AJC Statement on Religious Pluralism

Adopted by AJC Board of Governors

January 31, 2011

Jews everywhere are connected by ties of history, covenant, and heritage. Although we often disagree vigorously over the interpretation of tradition, these disagreements reflect primarily our passionate concern for the Jewish people and its future. Judaism is often the focal point of our internal controversies, even as it represents the shared treasure of all Jews. Ideological differences, in large part, are a measure of our communal health, as they reflect our commitment to Judaism as our common heritage. Currently we confront serious divides within the Jewish people over politics, ideology, religion, and culture. Growing fissures prevail, both in Israel and the Diaspora, between Jews who define themselves as religious or secular, traditionalists or liberals. Differences over fundamental issues--who is a Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew, the meaning of a Jewish state-- are real and warrant significant attention.

For more than 100 years, AJC’s mission has been to advocate on behalf of the Jewish people. During that time AJC has generally refrained from taking positions on issues of purely internal Israeli concern. Israel is a democracy and a sovereign state that determines its own policies. However, precisely because our ties to Israel are so deep and our concerns of a growing rift between Israel and American Jewry are so tangible, we now feel compelled to lend our voice to those within Israeli society calling for greater separation of religion from politics. Israel’s safety, security, connection with Jews living in the Diaspora, and critical significance to the future of the Jewish people warrant no less.

We are concerned that the office of the Chief Rabbinate has become politicized and appears directed toward enforcing political positions endorsed by ultra-Orthodox political parties within the context of Israeli coalition politics. In recent months otherwise well-intentioned efforts to facilitate conversion to Judaism have been linked for political reasons with efforts to expand the power of the Chief Rabbinate to determine who qualifies as a convert. Its monopoly on issues affecting the actual status of Jews not only within Israel but also of those seeking to immigrate to Israel damages both the unity of the Jewish people internationally and risks the alienation of American Jewry from the Jewish state.

This could exacerbate already troubling trends. Studies suggest a possible weakening of Jewish identity, in different ways, among both American Jews and Israelis. In both communities, indifference and apathy to the Jewish heritage are troubling. Whatever our differences over religion, Jews relate to Israel as a Jewish state and are concerned about Israel’s Jewish identity. Therefore, all the religious movements are encouraged to expose all Jews to the beauties inherent in Judaic tradition through educational programs rather than through state power or political processes. Each religious movement constitutes a collective counter-voice to the apathy and indifference to Judaism and Judaic heritage that endangers the common Jewish future.

Notwithstanding our differences, ties of peoplehood and heritage remain deep. We must never permit our disagreements, no matter how passionately debated, to undermine our commitment to klal yisrael, our dedication to ensuring Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state, and our covenant of participation in the ongoing Jewish historical enterprise. Our disagreements should not be permitted to spill over into delegitimation of one group of Jews by another.

This can be seen most graphically in the context of marriage. Historically, the ability of Jews to marry one another has been critical to preserving Jewish unity and peoplehood. Today the problem of preserving marriage eligibility among Jews is quite real given conflicting criteria of defining who is a Jew. Therefore it is imperative that greater attention be paid once again to seeking common conversion procedures, acceptable to all the major religious streams. Efforts to bridge this divide have been made in the past—with some success. Some 15 years ago the Ne’eman Commission, which represented all streams within the Jewish people and which established a model of intra-Jewish cooperation, constituted a serious effort to advance common goals of Jewish peoplehood by creating a uniform conversion procedure acceptable in principle to all the major religious movements and incorporating diversity of Jewish teaching. We believe that this model could be followed in an effort to change the current political dynamic, a change which we believe would strengthen both the State of Israel itself and its ties to the Jews of the Diaspora.

Accordingly, AJC affirms the following:

  1. The coercive power of the state ought not be invoked to invalidate the personal Jewish status of citizenship of immigrants professing Judaism either by birth or by choice. The rights of individual Jews for purposes of immigration or citizenship should not be determined by the necessities of coalition politics.
  2. AJC recommends that a commission with representation from all sectors of Israeli society, including the respective religious movements within Judaism should be convened to establish conversion procedures and guidelines similar to the approach followed by the Ne’eman Commission. This represented a true compromise with all expressions of Judaism given a voice in the teaching of prospective converts while the conversion itself would conform to Halakhic practice.
  3. The role of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel primarily ought be to offer a symbolic and moral voice concerning the Jewish qualities of Israel rather than to exert power on matters affecting the rights of individual citizens, including those who have become citizens upon immigration from abroad.
  4. Although the Judaic texture of the state must remain non-negotiable, Israel should redefine and reaffirm its relationship with and responsibilities towards world Jewry. We support an inclusive vision of Israel that reflects and recognizes the diversity of Jewish expression in the Diaspora and that accepts as Jews immigrants from diverse Jewish expressions and representations.
  5. The recently-announced extended six month moratorium on the so-called Rotem Bill on conversion sponsored by the Yisrael Beiteinu Party provides a welcome opportunity for thoughtful deliberation on how best to approach this issue. Proponents and opponents agree that the motivations behind the bill were praiseworthy-i.e. to make conversion more accessible for Russian immigrants. They disagree as to whether the price of greater accessibility should be extension of the monopoly of the chief rabbinate on conversion matters. We urge that during the coming six months greater consideration be given to alternative conversion proposals, e.g., that of Rabbi Chaim Amsallem to follow Sephardic tradition of not linking conversion to rigorous religious observance. Compromises will be required on all sides, but the objective of lowering barriers to joining the Jewish people remains our most critical goal in this area so as to enhance the collective interests of Israel and the Jewish people.
  6. AJC applauds the recent decision of Chief Rabbis Amar and Yosef upholding conversions performed in the Israeli military by rabbis outside the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. This decision, which has drawn considerable criticism in haredi circles, reflects an overall consensus within most-albeit by no means all-sectors of the Jewish people that the expressed willingness to defend by arms the Jewish state accompanied by a desire to convert to Judaism underscores the commitment of the individual to become part of the Jewish people. Such forward-looking by leading rabbis merits the praise of Jews everywhere.
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