In an important and worrisome essay in Ha’aretz, Israeli political scientist Shlomo Avineri frets about a “new rift” between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.
Avineri writes about political disagreements, and blames both the current Israeli government for alienating friends and American Jews who are quicker to criticize Israel than understand its real challenges.
Avineri’s solution is an immediate Israel-Diaspora dialogue, initiated by Israeli President Shimon Peres. “Perhaps the government will recognize that it also has a role to play in the estrangement,” writes Avineri, “and perhaps the critics will see that reality is slightly more complex than they realize.”
If Avineri’s proposal becomes reality, high on its agenda should be efforts by Israel’s Orthodox Rabbinate to assert a monopoly over conversion and Israeli citizenship. A proposed conversion bill spearheaded by the secular Yisrael Beiteinu party is intended to solve a real problem: the uncertain status of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But noble goals do not always lead to flawless legislation.
The bill would grant the rabbinate the sole power of conversion, removing such authority from the Reform and Conservative majority as well as a considerable number of Modern Orthodox rabbis and institutions in the Diaspora. Among the bill’s most troubling provisions is one saying that anyone currently ineligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return will remain ineligible even following conversion in Israel — a heavy-handed attempt to prevent illegal immigrants from undergoing conversion solely to obtain Israeli citizenship.
This week a broad coalition of American-Jewish groups, including the Jewish Federations of North America and signatories from the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, wrote a letter urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to use his influence with his coalition partners to withdraw the bill. If not, the leaders worry that the legislation “will undoubtedly alienate many North American Jews from Israel, widening an already precarious and growing rift that should concern us all.”
For the sake of unity, security, and identity, Israel and the Diaspora must find a way to bridge the gaps between them.