The greatest threat to U.S.-Israel relations has nothing to do with a secret American peace plan, settlement construction, a new Intifada, another Arab oil boycott, or Palestinian civil war.
The latest skirmish in the “who is a Jew” wars is taking place in the Knesset Committee on Law and Justice, where two right wing parties, one secular and the other fervently Orthodox, are writing a new law governing conversion that has many American Jewish leaders worried about the far-reaching impact on support for Israel.
The legislation gives the chief rabbinate, run by the fervently Orthodox, a monopoly on conversions and overturns a High Court ruling providing Israeli citizenship for Jews converted by all branches of Judaism.
Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency, called the measure divisive, saying that by not recognizing “conversions of other streams of Judaism, it causes Diaspora Jews to feel that they are being made ‘illegal.’ This is stupidity.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has said the law “delegitimizes most of North American Jewry.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform Movement, called the legislation “foolish, disruptive” and said, “It will cause an anger amid American Jews when Israel needs its support the most.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the bill will not come up for a final vote, but that could change in the face of pressure from its two principle backers: the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Shas, the Orthodox Sephardi party whose main interest is state funding for its institutions and interests. They have the power to bring down his government if they don’t get their way.
It is part of a larger problem that threatens Israel-Diaspora relations. Religious extremists are taking greater and greater control of Israeli life. They are disproportionately getting public funding while growing numbers are not working, not paying taxes, and not serving in the Army.
This conversion law is the latest example of an anti-democratic religious establishment run amok thanks to politicians, right and left, who are willing to buy their votes at any cost.
Last week police arrested Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, for carrying a Torah near the Western Wall, a practice forbidden by a High Court ruling and laws passed for the fervently Orthodox who control the area.
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman late last year said he would like to see Halacha — Torah law — replace the state’s legal system. He dropped the idea in the face of extensive criticism. Even if he was just thinking out loud, such remarks by a Justice Minister sent a disturbing message to 90 percent of American Jewry who are not Orthodox: Israel is not for you.
Israel’s Orthodox establishment has been pushing for laws that forbid the display of hametz in stores and restaurants during Pesach.
In many communities bus companies are pressured to segregate passengers by gender. Where is the Israeli Rosa Parks?
In the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel, Ashkenazi parents went to jail rather than let their daughters attend an all-girls schools with Sephardi girls after the High Court ruled against racial segregation. The parents insisted they weren’t racists, just protecting their right to choose where to send their children to school.
As the religious establishment’s domination spreads across Israeli society, American Jews are increasingly asking, Why should we work so hard for a cause that says we don’t respect you, we don’t want you and we don’t even consider you a real Jew?
If it is enacted, the new conversion law could create a severe crisis in relations between Israel and American Jewry that would undermine Israel’s support on Capitol Hill by discouraging political activism among the huge majority of American Jews who do not identify as Orthodox. What motivation would they have to lobby or provide financial support for an Israel that tells them their denominations are not legitimate?
Admirers say Prime Minister Netanyahu is at heart a political pragmatist. Now is the time for him to demonstrate that pragmatism by blocking the conversion bill and putting an end to the religious blackmail that threatens the Israel most American Jews care so deeply about.