March 4, 2021
This week, the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a ruling on conversions conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis. We hear from AJC's Director of Contemporary Jewish Life Laura Shaw Frank, a leading thinker on this important issue, about how this decision will affect the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Then, in celebration of International Women’s Day, Director of AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights Felice Gaer reflects on what it means to see the world and human rights through women’s eyes.
- (00:40) Laura Shaw Frank
- (17:10) Felice Gaer
- (19:38) Manya Brachear Pashman
- (23:34) Seffi Kogen
Seffi Kogen (0:40)
This week in a landmark decision, the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a long awaited ruling about how the State of Israel views conversions conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis. This issue has persisted for decades and is at the center of much of the debate around the Israel-diaspora relationship. So I figured I would chat with one of the foremost thinkers about the future of that relationship, AJC's Director of Contemporary Jewish Life Dr. Laura Shaw Frank. Laura, thank you for joining us.
Laura Shaw Frank (1:08)
Great to be here, Seffi.
Seffi Kogen (1:10)
Can you just remind us first what the status quo is before this ruling? Let's say I'm in Israel, and I have a major Jewish moment in my life. A birth, God forbid a death, a wedding, a conversion, who kind of owns those milestones in Jewish life in Israel?
Laura Shaw Frank (1:30)
A birth, a death, a conversion, a burial, those are all governed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. And the Chief Rabbinate is an Orthodox Rabbinate. It is a branch of the government. And in order to get married in Israel, to get divorced, to convert, one has to go through that Orthodox rabbinic establishment.
Seffi Kogen (1:52)
Okay, so now let's talk about what this decision is and what it isn't. So this ruling is not about marriages, it's not about burials, it's not about who is born a Jew, it's not even about most conversions. It very specifically requires Israel's Interior Ministry to accept conversions conducted by non-Orthodox rabbis inside Israel for the purposes of citizenship. So if I'm understanding it correctly, if a non-Jewish, non-Israeli person were living in Israel, and decided to convert and decided to do so with a Reform or Conservative rabbi, and then they wanted to become Israeli under the Law of Return, the Interior Ministry, which manages that process, will accept that conversion as legitimate, the person is Jewish, and they can claim Israeli citizenship like any other Jew. Is that right, first of all?
Laura Shaw Frank (2:46)
You are right. This is a very, very narrow decision. So I need to take a step back and explain something first. The law of return, which is a law that Israel passed in 1950, and then amended in 1970, provides for citizenship for anybody who is Jewish, and anybody who is a convert. So we'll say for now, a convert outside Israel, someone who converted according to any religious community outside Israel, including Reform or Conservative, or someone who is the son or daughter of a Jew or even the spouse of a Jew. So according to Orthodox Jewish law, you have to be born to a Jewish mother or convert according to Orthodox law in order to be Jewish. But the Reform movement, for example, says that if you're born to a Jewish father, in most circumstances, you are also Jewish. So there are different definitions of sort of who is a Jew. And not only that, but the Law of Return wanted to cast its net wide in order to encompass all sorts of people who might be impacted by, for example, antisemitism around the world, and who might need refuge in the State of Israel. They're sort of looking at like, what did the Nazi movement in Germany look at in terms of who was a Jew. So the Law of Return cast its net very wide, and doesn't necessarily stick to the definitions of Orthodox Jewish law with respect to who is a Jew. So that's really important because that means that someone could actually move to Israel, obtain citizenship through the Law of Return through the Ministry of the Interior, but still not be considered Jewish according to the Rabbinate. So that means that somebody could make aliyah, become a citizen of Israel as a Jew, but not be able to marry in Israel because according to Orthodox Jewish law, they are not Jewish.
Seffi Kogen (4:33)
Which is a critical issue, right? But that's not what this ruling is about.
Laura Shaw Frank (4:37)
This ruling is very, very narrow. It refers only to conversions, as you said, that have taken place within the State of Israel by Conservative or Reform rabbis. So the reason that's particularly narrow is that the Conservative and Reform movements are actually quite small in Israel. And the number of conversions that take place under their auspices per year is something like 30, so this is really not a major group of people. Nonetheless, the decision is actually very significant. Not in its practical sense, but really in more of a symbolic sense.
Seffi Kogen (5:13)
Tell us why it's symbolically important.
Laura Shaw Frank (5:16)
At least in my mind, and I think in the minds of many diaspora Jews, this decision was a statement that the way Jewish life is lived in the diaspora is also valid, at least in some fashion in Israel. And remember, in the Law of Return, even before this ruling, Reform and Conservative conversions were mostly accepted for the purposes of the Law of Return as long as they took place in the diaspora. And that also matches what happens in terms of weddings. You can have a Reform wedding, a Conservative wedding, any type of wedding that takes place in America, and it is accepted in Israel. But within the borders of Israel, there was a different standard for who is Jewish for the purposes of Law of Return, and also who can marry and divorce in the Rabbinate. So this sort of knocked one of those out and united the Jewish world around the notion of the way the Jewish people decide who is Jewish is much broader than simply the Orthodox Rabbinate. And we now will match what's happening in Israel with what has been already going on in the diaspora.
Seffi Kogen (6:22)
So that's very interesting phrasing that you use when you said that it united the Jewish world because I understand what you're saying. What you mean is now the standard in Israel, when it comes to conversion, for the purposes of Israeli citizenship, is the same as it already was in the diaspora. But in another very real sense, I think this actually may be divided the Jewish world, and now we're seeing in Israel along religious lines, and frankly, also just along kind of right, left political lines, this breakdown, this divide. Some of that is because there's a somewhat prominent left wing candidate who's a Reform rabbi and this is the first time I think that there is likely to be a Reform rabbi in the Knesset. And of course, on the opposite side of that, there are the ultra-Orthodox political parties who have in recent decades become entrenched partners for the Israeli political right. So it's maybe united the standards in the Jewish world around this issue. But it's a really divisive matter. And there's actually a threat now in response. What are we hearing from the Israeli right and from Haredi political figures, in particular, in terms of how they want to respond to this ruling?
Laura Shaw Frank (7:34)
You're right that in Israel, it has been quite a divisive decision. The Haredi political parties have come out very strongly against it. The Likud has sort of been a little bit more cagey about its response to it. Likud, meaning the governing party now, Bibi Netanyahu's party. But I think it's really important to understand a couple of things as we think about this divide. The ultra-Orthodox parties feel that this is an encroachment on the power of the Rabbinate to decide who is a Jew and who is not a Jew within the State of Israel. And the ultra-Orthodox political parties, the Haredi parties, have an enormous amount of power in Israel. They are parts of almost all coalitions. They are needed to be coalition partners to get people over that 260 seat majority in the Knesset. And the Likud, looking ahead to the elections that are going to take place in just a couple of weeks, are concerned about alienating these political parties that they may very well need to form a coalition if they do, in fact, win the election. So there's a piece of Jewish unity here. But there's also a very real sort of real political issue going on. This definition of who is a Jew does not line up along right left political lines. The fact that the Likud is sort of unhappy about the decision really has more to do with their fear of retaliation from the Haredi parties than their own opinions about it.
Seffi Kogen (9:03)
So there's been this interesting component of the backlash, and there's some background I think that our listeners need here. Haredim seem to be obsessed with this idea of a bark mitzvah. There's this kind of, I think, tongue in cheek, kind of like humorous thing that very few liberal American Jews have done. You know, they have a dog that they love very much, the dog turns 13, which is, you know, not unexpectedly old age for a dog to turn, and they want to celebrate their dog and so they have this little party for the dog called a bark mitzvah. I don't think it's the silliest thing that Americans sometimes do. I don't even think it's the silliest thing that American Jews sometimes do. And I don't think anyone who's doing it thinks like wow, like now my dog is entering the covenant of Abraham. But Haredim have been obsessed with this for a while, as like indicative of representative of the decline of seriousness around Judaism, the decline of commitment to Judaism, that liberal American Jews possess. And so one thing that we've seen in the aftermath of this decision is Haredim talking about how you know, first, this ruling, next, it's a bark mitzvah for everyone. They've been saying like this is, you know, the start of a slippery slope. And that's why it needs to be overturned. And then on the left politically, on the secular side, and your point is well taken that these things don't neatly divide in the left right divide, but on kind of the secular left, they've been saying, "oh my God, these Haredi insiders are saying that Jews are like dogs. And you know who else said Jews were like dogs? The Nazis." We've rapidly lost any kind of sense of seriousness around this conversation. I mean, what do you make of all that kind of escalating rhetoric on the two sides?
Laura Shaw Frank (10:52)
I think that's so much of this cuts to the core of the way we view Israel and the Jewish world. And whether people are sort of recognizing that, wholly or not, I think that that's actually at the core of what this is. In the eyes of the Haredi political parties, and in the eyes of, of some other Orthodox Jews, maybe even many ultra-Orthodox, Haredi Jews, there has to be a standard, there has to be a Jewish law standard regarding who is a Jew, and it should be the Orthodox standard, and Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, has to comport with that standard. Otherwise, what kind of homeland is it for the Jewish people? And looking at it in a more holistic sense of diaspora Jews, most of whom do see Israel as being very significant as a homeland for the Jewish people, but in their minds, homeland means representing the Jewish people as a whole, and representing sort of the wide variety of beliefs and practices that exist in the Jewish world. So the Haredi community in Israel is about 12% of the population. In America, it's about 7% of the Jewish population, right? So it's just a tiny, tiny group of people. Certainly the Haredi population is a minority, small minority in the Jewish world as a whole. And diaspora Jews feel like the Israeli system of thinking through Judaism needs to be representative of the whole. So I think that this cuts to such a core element of people's Jewish identities and the way that people view the role of Israel in the lives of Jews around the world, that it just becomes a very heated thing.
Seffi Kogen (12:29)
So this whole idea that this is important for the future of the Israel-diaspora relationship. It relies on the assumption, though, that American Jews actually care about Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. And we have this whole dust up five years ago, I guess, at this point around the Kotel, around the Western Wall, where there was this proposal that non-Orthodox rabbis would have a say and kind of the custodianship of that site, and ultimately, the Haredi Rabbinate won that fight, frankly, and nothing really changed. I mean, Federations still give copiously to Israel foundations, individual Jews still donate to Israel, still visit Israel, still speak up for Israel. Is there a misperception at the core of all of this, that these things actually matter to American Jews?
Laura Shaw Frank (13:13)
That's such a good question, Seffi. I don't think it's a misperception. I think that in many ways American Jews are continuing to support and love Israel despite this issue, because it's their Israel, and they don't have to love everything it does. But we do know from statistics and studies that look at American Jewry that this is an issue that profoundly, profoundly bothers them. You know, Israel is still the homeland of the Jewish people, there's still that so much that American Jews find so compelling about Israel is so important to their Jewish identities. But this aspect of Israeli Jewish life is something that is profoundly disturbing to many, many, many, many diaspora Jews. There is a growing sense among diaspora Jews that this is something that we have to push harder for. It's very hard to do that. We don't have much say as American Jews in the way Israel conducts its internal affairs. And you know, I mean, I would say that we shouldn't really have a say in the way Israel conducts any kind of security issues or anything that's to do with putting their soldiers on the front lines, but with respect to issues that define how Jews can practice their Judaism, vis-à-vis, the State of Israel, I do think that diaspora Jews should have a say.
Seffi Kogen (14:33)
This one is like, maybe a little personal for us. You're Orthodox. I'm Orthodox. We're not Haredi certainly and would be certainly black sheep in those circles. But we both belong to communities that are exceedingly skeptical of Reformed conversions. Why is it that we should feel good about this decision?
Laura Shaw Frank (14:55)
Here in America, we have seen the success of a pluralistic vision of Judaism, meaning I think that the concern in Israel among the Haredi Rabbinate is that we're going to create this divided community of Israel in which we're not able to marry one another because we don't know who's really Jewish. But we've seen that in America, it works out, meaning we're able to live side by side. And yes, Reformed conversions are not accepted as valid to make somebody Jewish in the communities that you and I live in, Seffi. But at the same time, they are part of a larger American Jewish community. And we sit in that larger American Jewish community and work together with the other movements of Judaism. If a Jewish law issue comes up, if a halachik issue comes up, then the rabbis work it out with the couple who wants to get married, with the child who's being adopted, with whatever the issue happens to be. But we sort of have a model here in America of how a pluralistic Jewish community can coexist and can continue to remain, you know, somewhat united. I wouldn't call it an incredibly united community. But we certainly have, you know, a significant unity among us. And I think that that's really what the problem is in Israel. There's like a lack of belief in the Jewish people to figure this out without state intrusion into it.
Seffi Kogen (16:27)
Laura, I think that you outlined such a hopeful vision of pluralistic Judaism, something that exists here in America, and we could be better at it, and we'd love to see exist even more in Israel. We'll be keeping our eyes on the developing situation unfolding from this decision. Thank you so much for joining us and helping us to understand it.
Laura Shaw Frank (16:46)
Thanks for having me, Seffi.
Seffi Kogen (16:54)
Now it's time for our closing segment Shabbat Table Talk. And joining us at our Shabbat table this week is Felice Gaer, the director of AJC's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human ights. Felice, when you're chatting with your family at your Shabbat table this weekend, what are you going to be talking about?
Felice Gaer (17:10)
l will be thinking and talking about International Women's Day, which will be celebrated on Monday, March 8, and about what it means to see the world and human rights through women's eyes. The simple statement that women's rights are human rights seems self-evident today. But it wasn't always and it is still under assault. Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought to bring equal treatment under law for women in America. I've been so proud to work through AJC's Jacob Blaustein Institute, with colleagues fighting for women's rights worldwide. For example, we've supported the pathbreaking work of several UN independent human rights experts known as special rapporteurs. One of these is Karima Bennoune, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights. Karima has used her UN platform to consistently remind us that human rights are universal, and indeed, that women's rights are human rights. In her inspiring book, "Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here," Karima has shined a spotlight on the many cases of courageous women who have challenged the fundamentalists who restrict the human rights of women in so many countries. On Monday, I'll be toasting two such courageous women on whose behalf we've advocated, and recently been released from prison. The first is Loujain al-Hathloul, a young Saudi woman who protested the ban on women driving cars and raised the issue with the United Nations Human Rights Council. She was imprisoned for 1000 days, but released recently and that was really important. The second is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a remarkable Iranian human rights lawyer, winner of the European Parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize. Nasrin defended Iranian women prosecuted for removing their headscarves in protest of the mandatory Iranian dress code. As a result, she was imprisoned. But last week, she was temporarily released, and we very much hope it will become permanent. International Women's Day, March 8, offers us all a moment to reflect on the continued challenges women face at home and abroad in request for fair treatment and equal rights to, be free from gender based violence, from unfair family laws, from violations of reproductive rights, from wage discrimination, and much more.
Manya Brachear Pashman (19:39)
Felice, thank you so much for highlighting those remarkable women and the challenges they face. At our Shabbat table, we'll be enjoying a family favorite, breakfast for dinner. The breakfast? Green eggs and ham, at least the eggs part, made possible with a few drops of blue food coloring. "Green Eggs and Ham" has long been my favorite Dr. Seuss title. That is until I discovered another book on the shelf at my in-laws house this past summer. "On Beyond Zebra!" introduces young readers to a fantastic new alphabet or rather a postscript to the 26 modern English letters they already know. The 20 new letters include itch for itchapod, a creature in perpetual motion between here and there, and yekk for the yekko, a creature who revels in his own echo. But on Tuesday, March 2, author Theodore Geisel's birthday, Dr. Seuss enterprises announced it had ceased publication of "On Beyond Zebra!" and five other titles. The reason given was that "these books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong." Now I honestly don't recall what might have been viewed as offensive in "On Beyond Zebra!". The others are more clear. "If I Ran the Zoo" includes offensive caricatures of African characters with rings in their noses. "And to Think That I saw It on Mulberry Street" illustrates a Chinese man with a bowl of rice and slanted eyes. These stereotypical and offensive illustrations rank right up there with antisemitic parade floats that portrayed Jews with hooked noses and satchels of money. These are not caricatures that should be celebrated. And like antisemitism, these concerns also should not be politicized. But of course they are. Former first lady Melania Trump was attacked for giving Dr. Seuss books to school libraries. President Joe Biden was panned for marking Read Across America Day without mentioning Dr. Seuss. This year's Read Across America celebration highlighted books about diversity, family and fashion. Wacky Wednesday was the only ode to Dr. Seuss. But I get it. Reducing these concerns to politics makes it easy to take a side without giving it much thought. It discourages us from seeing the prejudice within ourselves and in those with whom we agree. It's much easier to try scoring points and revel in our own echoes. Antisemitism on the left? Antisemitism on the right? Well, it depends on who you ask, but it shouldn't. The conversation that should be taking place is one about the importance of children seeing positive images of themselves, and learning how to avoid negative stereotypes. Dr. Seuss would probably agree. Scholars point out that Geisel realized the error of his ways and tried to make amends. Don't forget, Seuss also wrote "Yertle the Turtle," a mockery of Hitler, and "The Sneetches," a book about seeing beyond our differences. "On Beyond Zebra!" is about expanding our horizons and stretching beyond our limits. That's the lesson I take from the book. And that's what we'll be talking about at our Shabbat table. Seffi?
Seffi Kogen (22:34)
One of the things I was thinking about when I was prepping for my chat with Laura Shaw Frank earlier in this episode was the old adage, if you give him an inch, they'll take a mile. The expression interestingly dates back about 500 years in one form or another and has some definite wisdom to it. Nevertheless, I think that it really doesn't apply in the instance of conversion in Israel. For the past 15 years, the state has been avoiding dealing with this issue. That whole time, pressure has been building up and the Haredi leadership has only ratcheted up that pressure. Though the principal issue was about Reform and Conservative rabbis performing conversions, the Haredi leadership seemed intent on finding increasingly egregious ways to behave on this issue. So we had examples of people who converted under Orthodox auspices, and then were spotted on the street doing something not Orthodox, you know, not wearing a kippah, for example, and were threatened with having their conversion invalidated. Or, another example, the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate telling the also orthodox IDF Rabbinate that its conversions were not legitimate. This in turn led to the horrible situation that Jews who had immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union and thus were deemed insufficiently Jewish, but who converted in the IDF, could die fighting for the Jewish state, but be ineligible for burial in a Jewish cemetery. What if the Haredi leadership had given an inch? What if they had said it is critically important that there be one rigorous standard for conversion in the Jewish state, but we don't need to have a monopoly on that process, any conversion that accords with the following guidelines is legitimate? Right? What if they had said that and then outline what they wanted to see, what they thought those guidelines should be? Might that not have served as a valve to release some of the pent up pressure? I think this was the situation in which the Haredi Rabbinate would have been better served by giving an inch. They might have been then less likely to lose the mile. As Laura indicated, the ultimate situation is far from resolved. Only time will tell what this all means for Jewish religious pluralism in Israel. In the meantime, it's a topic that I'll be discussing at my Shabbat table. Shabbat shalom.
Manya Brachear Pashman (25:02)
Felice Gaer (25:03)