Israel and conversion: Oy vey, here we go again!

Israel and conversion: Oy vey, here we go again!

David Harris
July 19, 2010

The Knesset, Israel's parliament, is once again involved in conversion issues, thanks to a bill introduced by David Rotem of the Yisrael Beitenu Party. If history is any guide, the damage could be deep.

Yes, there is a problem in Israel. Many arrivals from the Former Soviet Union are not recognized as Jews and wish to be. Finding a solution is important. But in this case, the proposed cure - to further empower the chief rabbinate - may be more harmful than the illness.

I am a Jewish pluralist. I recognize that we are all on one journey, even though we proceed on many diverse paths.

Having devoted my career to the defense of the Jewish people, I do not make distinctions among Jews. In my book, all Jews have the inalienable right to live in freedom, equality and safety.

Sixteen years ago - July 18, 1994 - 85 people were killed in a terrorist attack on the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. Hundreds more were injured. The perpetrators were intent on killing Jews. It did not matter whether the Jews were Orthodox or non-Orthodox, Zionist or non-Zionist, Jews by birth or choice. All that counted, for the terrorists, was that the victims identified as Jews and the AMIA was a Jewish institution - one, by the way, that served the entire Jewish community without distinction.

And in my studies of the Holocaust, I do not recall any reference to separate box cars, ghettos or barracks for Jews based on their, shall we say, degree of Jewishness. The Nazis had their Nuremberg Laws defining who was a Jew. That was that. The result is known.

In other words, we are a community of shared destiny, just as we are a community of shared ancestry.

Yet there are those who would willfully divide us, investing a monopoly of power in one interested party, creating hierarchies of "membership in the club," and relentlessly questioning the legitimacy of other would-be Jews.

Those who oppose such efforts must speak out loud and clear. The stakes are high - in fact, they could not be higher. As I have written earlier, we face the question whether we are to be a welcoming or a walled-off people.

In 1978, my girlfriend, Giulietta, and I decided to marry. We were living in Vienna and working with Soviet Jewish refugees arriving in the West en route to new lives. The work was exhilarating. It was also dangerous. Ever since the 1973 hijacking by Arab terrorists of a train carrying Soviet Jews across Czechoslovakia to Vienna, followed by several letter bombs, everyone was on high alert. Gun-toting guards were ever present in our lives.

We wanted a simple marriage and approached the local rabbi, who was Orthodox. That was fine with us. My future wife was from an Orthodox family, and our work, involving Jews of every conceivable background, only underscored our sense of the "oneness" of the Jewish people.

But it was not to be. The rabbi could not have been less gracious or more suspicious. Here we were putting our lives on the line for the Jewish people, yet he asked us endless questions about our identity, later insisting on a paper trail a mile long. We were taken aback. We thought the rabbi would be delighted to preside at a Jewish wedding in Vienna, barely 30 years after the Shoah. Surely, there could not have been all that many.

In the end, we dropped the idea of marrying there.

I then asked my mother how to get married in New York. Her reply: "My wedding was in 1946. I'll have to check on how it's done today."

Not only did we end up tying the knot in New York, but the presiding rabbi turned out to be a warm and welcoming Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained by the Reform movement.

We were lucky. We had choices. In the end, what mattered most was that we were married under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy.

But in Israel the story can be different.

It is precisely the control of religious rites, from birth to death, which is so problematic.

This makes conversion to Judaism a nightmarish process for many who are eager to join the Jewish people in Israel, even as the Jewish people decry the prospect of shrinking numbers and threats to Jewish well-being only grow.

The difficulties in conversion also contribute to the sharp religious-secular divide in Israel. Many Jews adopt a non-religious, even anti-religious, position because they see their options as so limited, as compared, say, to the United States.

How many people, having thought about moving to Israel, ultimately decide against it because they fear they won't find adequate expression of their non-Orthodox practice there or, if they converted to Judaism, worry about legal or religious challenges to their identity?

The excessively deep entanglement of religion and politics in Israel has been bad for politics, worse for religion. When religion finds daily expression in political parties, horse-trading, and budget battles, religion is distorted, openly inviting cronyism and, often, corruption.

Every Knesset attempt to give more power to a religious monopoly defining Jewish life elicits a predictable and understandable storm of reaction from the Diaspora - especially the United States, where roughly 90 percent of Jews are non-Orthodox.

For those seeking to keep the Jewish people whole and the Israel-Diaspora intact for generations to come, such moves are downright dangerous, with potentially profound implications.

Thankfully, there are Israeli leaders who get it. They range from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, from Knesset Labor Party Member Einat Wilf to Kadima's Nachman Shai.

They are determined to stop this latest effort to divide the Jewish people. More power to them!

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Date: 7/19/2010 12:00:00 AM