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Rotem conversion law in Israel is under debate

 
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According to Knesset member David Rotem, if he has his way, Israel will enact a new law to make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis to convert to Judaism.

This will have the effect of better integrating tens of thousands of Israelis of Russian extraction, if not hundreds of thousands, into Israeli Jewish society, according to Rotem and Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, whose party, the Russian-dominated Yisrael Beiteinu, is sponsoring the bill. Most important, they say, the measure will make it easier for the Russians to marry other Israelis.

News Analysis

But critics, including some diaspora Jews and non-Orthodox leaders in Israel, are not happy with the proposal. They say the bill does not go far enough to ease the conversion process, expands the power of the Chief Rabbinate, delegitimizes non-Orthodox conversions, and does nothing to secure recognition in Israel for conversions performed in the diaspora.

The objections are part of what prompted a U.S. tour this week by the two legislators from Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, promised in the last campaign to tackle marriage and conversion issues. Rotem and Ayalon spent three days visiting American Jewish organizational leaders in a bid to allay concerns about the proposed bill.

The point of the tour, Ayalon explained, was “to alleviate any concerns from our brothers and sisters in the Conservative and Reform movements that they would be adversely impacted by any form of the bill.”

Rotem and Ayalon also met with the Orthodox Union and federation executives, among others, to discuss the proposed legislation.

Rabbi Uri Regev, a leading Reform rabbi in Israel and now president of Hiddush, a group that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, says that American Jewish leaders should not be distracted from the real harm the bill does in Israel.

“The devil is in the details,” Regev said. “What he’s not telling you is that the bill would result in serious ramifications in terms of the legal status of converts in general, of non-Orthodox converts in particular, and will not provide Russian olim with the kind of access and protection he claims.”

The conversion bill aims to address several problems with the status quo in Israel, according to Rotem, the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

In the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. While most of the Russian-speaking immigrants were Jewish according to halacha, or Jewish law, many did not have a Jewish mother and so were classified in Israel as non-Jews. That has led to all sorts of problems for the estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Israelis in this category, particularly when it comes to marriage. Israeli law makes no accommodation for civil marriage, whether between a Jew and a non-Jew or between two people of no religion. So the only way these Israelis can wed is if they convert to Judaism — no easy process in Israel.

Would-be converts must take classes, pass exams, and pledge to be religiously observant, and the approval for conversions is subject to the whims of special conversion courts. Complicating matters further, rabbinical courts in Israel in the past two years have invalidated a number of conversions performed years ago, casting doubt on thousands more conversions and provoking a firestorm of controversy. The Israeli Rabbinate also has circumscribed acceptance of conversions performed overseas, including Orthodox conversions, rankling diaspora rabbis.

Rotem says his bill would address some, but not all, of these problems.

The measure would empower any rabbi who is or was on a district rabbinate in Israel, or was or is the chief rabbi of a city or town, to perform a conversion for any Israeli regardless of place of residence. This would free would-be converts from the whims of the special conversion courts. It also would eliminate the current curricular requirements for converts, instead leaving conversion to the discretion of local rabbis.

Under the proposed law, conversions could be voided only if the rabbinical court that conducted the conversion determined it took place under false pretenses, subject to the approval of the president of the national Rabbinic Court of Appeals. And under Rotem’s proposal, a convert seeking to marry but encountering obstinacy from his local rabbinate could return to the rabbinical court that converted him to acquire his marriage license.

A few months ago, Rotem managed to get a separate bill passed to enable couples with no religion to enter into civil unions. Critics complain, however, that the law’s limitation to couples of no religion limits its impact to some 100 to 200 couples in Israel per year, and that it leaves unclear whether these unions will be recognized overseas as marriages. The bill does nothing to help interfaith couples, who are barred by law from marrying in Israel, or Jews who want to get married civilly rather than through the rabbinate.

The conversion bill faces significant hurdles in the Knesset. Ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, parties are fighting provisions of the bill that would ease the conversion process, and some non-Orthodox leaders complain that certain provisions of the bill may make matters worse for converts.

Rotem says the conversion bill is essential for Israel’s future. Without it, he warns, the non-Jewish, non-Arab population of Israel will swell to 1 million by 2035.

Regev, a staunch critic of the bill, says that while well-meaning, the measure contains several dangerous provisions. For one, it expands the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction by bringing conversions, until now the province of special conversion courts, under the explicit authority of the Chief Rabbinate.

For another, it requires the consent of the president of the nation’s Rabbinic Court of Appeals for a conversion to be revoked. While that might be an improvement over the current situation, in which lower rabbinic courts can unilaterally void conversions, it also raises the specter that the position could be taken up by a fundamentalist who would take a tougher line against converts.

Moreover, the conversion bill does not guarantee that rabbinates in Israel will recognize conversions performed overseas. While Israeli law recognizes such conversions as valid, in practice Israeli rabbinates often disregard them and bar such converts from marrying Jews — particularly in the case of non-Orthodox conversions.

Rotem dismisses this problem, saying that a convert from the United States always can find some rabbinate in Israel willing to grant him a marriage license — it’s just a matter of “legwork” going from city to city to find one.

Regev says this is ridiculous.

“Instead of allowing people to marry as they see fit, with the starting point being freedom of marriage, there are acrobatics when the chief rabbi of the city makes problems for a convert who wants to marry,” he said.

JTA

 
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Reckoning at Nariman House

Looking back at the horror at Mumbai’s Chabad house, finding hope in its rededication

The last time I visited Nariman House — Beit Chabad in Mumbai was in 2009, less than a year after the horrific terrorist attack there.

I had been on my annual visit to India, but I was not sure whether I wanted to see Nariman House again. In 2008, my daughter and I spent a Shabbat at Chabad-Nariman House with Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, whom everybody seemed to call Gabby, and his wife, Rivka. My memories of the house were very positive. I had particularly strong memories of Gabby’s pleasant nature and openness. Still, when some acquaintances at the Indian Express asked to go back to Nariman House, I had mixed feelings.

Until that point, I had only audio memories of that night, when I acted as an interpreter to another Chabad rabbi, speaking to one of the terrorists by phone in an unsuccessful attempt to save the Jewish victims. This visit, however, was much a more real and vivid testimony to the events of Thanksgiving Day, 2008. I noted the bullet holes on the walls of Nariman House, along with the message painted in Hindi and English by the Hindu and Muslim neighbors: “We condemn the terrorist attacks of 26-11-2008.” Over time, there were fewer and fewer newspaper reports, and the memories faded from my immediate consciousness. Still, as a Jew and as an Indian, and as somebody with a close connection to the terrorist attack, I could not forget it entirely.

 

Another decade, another war

Israeli journalist will report on Gaza at federation breakfast in Englewood

Alon Ben-David entered journalism in 1985. He was 18.

That’s when he was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces; he spent his time in the IDF working for Army Radio.

“It’s considered one of the best schools of journalism,” he said. “They throw you into the work.”

Thirty years later, Mr. Ben-David is the military correspondent for one of the three Israeli television channels, which incongruously is called Channel 10. (Channel 1 is the original, state-run station, where Mr. Ben David started working soon after his army term; the second channel is the privately run Channel 2.) In that capacity, he will come to Englewood next week to speak about the Israeli situation, with specific attention to the ramifications of this summer’s war with Gaza.

A lot of history has happened on his watch. He covered the first intifada, the second intifada, the second Lebanon war, the withdrawal from Gaza, the recent conflicts in Gaza … “All of those,” he said.

 

Challenge from the left

New NIF campaign adopts right’s tools

WASHINGTON — In a strategic shift, the New Israel Fund is arming itself with a set of sharp political tools and picking a fight.

Its target: Israel’s political right.

Its weapons: Opposition research, media monitoring, and staking its claims to patriotism and Zionism.

If NIF’s dramatic language, outlined in a September 18 press release, and its tough new posture seem familiar, it’s because the funder is adopting tactics used by the right to marginalize NIF and its clients.

“Over the past decade, Israel has endured an assault on liberal democratic values and a growing defiance of democratic norms, endangering freedom of speech and conscience as well as minority rights,” the release said. “Overt racism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise.”

 

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