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Israel-diaspora relations: A new equation

 

Rotem conversion law in Israel is under debate

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

 
 

N.J. prosecutors visit Israel,  inaugurate exchange program

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Bergen County assistant prosecutors in a Nazareth courtroom are, from left, Catherine Fantuzzi, Vered Adoni, Tom Kearney, and Ron McCormick. Ofer Lichtig

Four Bergen County assistant prosecutors recently returned from a 10-day crash course on criminal justice in Israel. To their surprise, they found major differences between the legal procedures of the two democracies.

Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said he had been interested for some time in having his staff of 60 lawyers “learn how the administration of justice is accomplished in foreign countries, particularly in those jurisdictions where social settings would dictate a heightened awareness of the rights of both the victims and the accused.”

Last September, Molinelli and Assistant Prosecutor Vered Adoni attended a breakfast session summing up the latest round in the UJA of Northern New Jersey’s Partnership 2000 professional exchange program for emergency services personnel from Bergen County and the federation’s Israeli partner city of Nahariya. According to Partnership 2000 Coordinator Machla Shaffer, the program allows law-enforcement personnel to learn how each country deals with specific threats such as terrorism.

Impressed by this information exchange, Molinelli asked Haifa native Adoni to coordinate a similar program for assistant prosecutors. With Shaffer’s assistance, Adoni drew up an itinerary touching on academic, judicial, and legislative perspectives on Israel’s criminal justice system “from the moment a crime is committed to when an appeal takes place,” as Adoni put it. She served as the group’s translator when necessary.

Adoni had emigrated from Israel with her family at 15, returning to fulfill her military service before graduating from Montclair State University and Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She therefore had just as much to learn as did her colleagues Catherine Fantuzzi, Thomas Kearney, and Ron McCormick.

By the end of the April 29-May 8 trip, they had accumulated “pages upon pages of information” to share with the other assistant prosecutors. “I’m sure they will be fascinated by the differences between the two legal systems. Sometimes you think your system is the only one that works,” Adoni said. Later this year, she hopes to host the first group of Israeli prosecutors in Hackensack.

One of their first stops was the northern mixed Arab-Jewish city of Nazareth, where Deputy Prosecutor Shalva Levine and her staff provided a primer on Israeli criminal law. The visitors discovered that Israeli prosecutors wield considerable power.

“In the United States, prosecutors cannot make a decision to indict; that decision is subject to a grand jury to whom we present the evidence,” said Adoni. “In Israel, indictment is the sole decision of the prosecutor.”

Indeed, the very idea of trial by jury is unknown in Israel, where judges are both fact-finders and finders of law.

Tel Aviv District Court President Devorah Berliner and several of her judges expressed skeptical curiosity about the jury system to Adoni’s group.

“They did not see how people can decide on the fate of the accused if they are not legally trained. They had a hard time understanding how we can conduct a trial in front of 12 people from different backgrounds. And we have a hard time understanding how a judge has so much power in deciding the fate of the accused,” said Adoni. “We each concluded that it’s not likely either system will ever change.”

Another critical procedural difference is that Israeli prosecutors are permitted to argue that a defendant’s silence is indicative of guilt.

“One of the fundamental rights in the United States is the right to remain silent, and if God forbid a prosecutor comments on a defendant’s silence, it results in a mistrial,” said Adoni. “So this was a shocker for us.”

They were equally surprised to learn that Israeli law provides no minimum sentencing guidelines. “Israeli judges can impose any jail time they want as long as they don’t go past the maximum,” Adoni said. David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, told the Bergen visitors that he is looking into imposing minimum sentencing guidelines, but faces opposition from judges and defense attorneys.

That point was reinforced during a meeting with public defenders, where the Bergen prosecutors also learned that even wealthy Israelis can qualify for free legal representation if they meet certain criteria. In the United States, indigence is the sole qualifying factor.

Another difference is that whereas the U.S. Supreme Court annually chooses a small fraction of cases to hear, the Israeli Supreme Court is required to consider every one of the thousands of cases brought before it — leading to a huge caseload and corresponding backlog. This situation makes for “a very busy appellate role” for state’s attorneys, said Adoni.

Turning to law enforcement, Hebrew University Prof. Badi Hasisi gave the prosecutors an overview of the relationship between different groups of Israelis and the police.

Hasisi revealed data showing that Jewish attitudes toward police in Judea and Samaria deteriorated greatly after the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and a subsequent violent eviction of settlers in Amona, while Arab-Israeli attitudes toward police had soured during the intifada just a few years before.

Hasisi also shared his research suggesting that fighting terror detracts from the police’s ability to address common crime in Jewish areas, while in Arab areas extra precautions such as roadblocks actually enhance police effectiveness. “This tells us something about moving resources to deal with terror’s byproducts,” said Hasisi, who recently published these findings in a British law-enforcement journal.

In Nazareth, Levine briefed the group on the illegal drug trade along the Lebanon-Israel border and brought them to one of the smuggling hot spots. She also took them to a Tiberias prison, where Adoni was impressed with the emphasis on rehabilitation and education. “It was very apparent that they attempt to return the defendant to society in the best way possible,” she said. “This is a goal we share in the United States.”

 
 

Opponents alarmed as Israeli conversion bill moves ahead

Opponents of a controversial bill that could give the Orthodox rabbinate the final say over conversions in Israel are trying to keep the bill from moving ahead in the Israeli Knesset after its surprise introduction and passage by a Knesset committee.

For months, Israeli lawmakers have been discussing a bill that would put more power over conversion into the hands of Israel’s Orthodox-dominated rabbinate by giving local rabbis the ability to perform conversions and giving the Chief Rabbinate oversight and control over the whole process.

The bill, sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset member David Rotem, gained steam Monday with its approval in the Knesset law committee by a 5-4 vote. The bill now must pass three readings before the full Knesset to become law.

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David Rotem, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, pushed a controversial conversion bill through the committee by a 5-4 vote on July 12. Flash90/JTA

Opponents are desperately trying to stall the process, at least until the Knesset starts a two-month break next week.

“They have to bring it to the Knesset now for a first reading, and we have to make sure that it will not happen,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, told JTA.

Sharansky is leading a coalition against the bill that includes the leaders of the North American Jewish federation system and the non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements in the United States.

Rotem’s bill originally was intended to ease the conversion process within Israel and make it easier for non-Jewish Israelis of Soviet extraction to obtain conversions and marry within Israel.

Despite its intent, opponents warned that the bill would consolidate control over conversions in the office of the Chief Rabbinate and drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora by carrying the risk that non-Orthodox conversions performed in the diaspora could be discounted in Israel. In addition, they said the bill would affect the eligibility of converts for the Law of Return, which grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone who is Jewish or has at least one Jewish grandparent.

The opponents urged Rotem to revise the proposal. They believed they had a deal in place with Rotem to hold off on the bill pending more discussion after Rotem came to the United States in April to discuss the bill with them and after a number of meetings between Sharansky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several top Israeli officials, including the justice minister and minister for diaspora affairs, had agreed to work with Sharansky on altering the bill.

But Rotem caught Sharansky and the diaspora leaders by surprise by bringing the bill to a committee vote this week; Sharansky was given only a day’s warning. The move set off a maelstrom of criticism from the diaspora.

The CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, Jerry Silverman, called Rotem’s action a “betrayal.”

In a letter of protest from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism that was signed by 14 other organizations, including various arms of the Conservative movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote, “Rotem’s actions are contrary to the assurances we received in meetings with him and with others over the last several months.”

In an interview with JTA, Rotem was unapologetic about moving ahead and said, “This bill will pass, no doubt.”

“I never promised anything,” Rotem said. “I told them all the time in the meetings that if I will see there is a majority, I will bring it a vote. No one can say I promised anything.”

In their discussions with Rotem, diaspora leaders expressed concern about an item in the bill that would have taken away the right to automatic citizenship for anyone who comes to Israel as a refugee but then converts to Judaism. Rotem removed that item before pushing the bill through the law committee.

Now, he says, the bill has no effect on American or diaspora Jews and that this is solely an Israeli matter over which non-Israeli Jews should have no say.

“I don’t know why they wanted to have discussions,” he said. “I came to the U.S. I spoke to leaders, and I explained this is nothing that touched the American community. It has nothing to with Jews in the diaspora. It is only an Israeli matter.”

Since Monday, Sharansky has engaged in a number of discussions with Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu. The Jewish Agency chief said he believes the bill will not come before the Knesset this week, and hopes it will not be on the agenda before the two-month recess provides a chance to alter or scuttle the bill.

Sharansky said he is pushing for Netanyahu and his Likud Party to publicly oppose it.

“If it is clear Likud will not support it, it will not pass,” Sharansky said.

The Jewish Federations say that Silverman and federation lay leaders met with Israel’s president Shimon Peres Monday. Peres, according to a JFNA press release, pressed for more dialogue on the proposed bill that would give American voices greater credence.

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel. We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life,” Peres told the group.

“A discussion that bears consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices — from within Israel and from without. The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.”

“It is important for us, for the unanimity of the moment, that we have to keep the pressure on,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told JTA.

“I think it would be an error to think that in the political society as dynamic and hyper-dynamic as Israel is that we are done with this,” he said. “The people who care about these issues have to constantly keep them on the agenda and explain why they are important to decision-makers.”

JTA

 
 

Opposition to Israeli conversion bill mounts

WASHINGTON – Opposition to a proposed Israeli conversion bill is mounting, from the U.S. Congress to the Israeli prime minister.

Meanwhile, the bill is likely to be put on hold while the Knesset adjourns this week for a two-month recess.

The controversy over the bill erupted last week when its main sponsor, David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, unexpectedly put it to a committee vote. The measure passed by a 5-4 margin, sending it to the full Knesset.

Meant to give would-be converts more leeway in choosing where and how to convert in Israel, the bill also would consolidate control over conversions under the office of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Non-Orthodox diaspora Jewish movements and the leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America and Jewish Agency for Israel all have warned that non-Orthodox converts would be put at risk of being disqualified as Jews by the Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate.

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Sen. Ron Wyden, left, is asking Jewish Senate colleagues to sign a letter opposing an Israeli conversion bill. Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, right, has agreed to sign the letter. Office of Sen. Ron Wyden/Office of Sen. Frank Lautenburg

In recent days, a Jewish U.S. senator unhappy about the bill, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), began circulating a letter asking fellow lawmakers to join him in condemning the controversial Israeli measure. Wyden’s letter is circulating among the Senate’s 13 Jewish lawmakers for more signatures before it is delivered to Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he opposes the bill in its current form. The bill “could tear apart the Jewish people,” Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Following its passage last week by the Knesset’s Law, Constitution, and Justice Committee, the bill must pass three readings in the Knesset for it to become law. The prime minister said he would try to remove the bill by consensus, but if that fails he will ask members of his Likud Party and other coalition members to oppose it in the Knesset. With the Knesset on the cusp of a long recess, the bill is unlikely to come up for another vote until the fall.

Rotem says the bill aims to simplify the conversion process, empowering local Israeli community rabbis to perform conversions and thereby make it easier for Israelis to convert — including those who don’t intend to adhere to Orthodox observance. But in giving the Chief Rabbinate ultimate authority over conversions, the bill puts non-Orthodox converts at risk and may make it more difficult for non-Orthodox converts to make aliyah, critics in the diaspora warn.

Rotem says the bill should not concern diaspora Jews.

“It has nothing to do with Jews in the diaspora,” Rotem told JTA last week. “It is only an Israeli matter.”

Shas Party Chairman Eli Yishai, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition government, said he supports the bill.

“The absence of a conversion law is the greatest spiritual danger for the people of Israel at this time,” he told Ynet.

In the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization, said that “While the legislation in question may not be perfect, we who live in North America must recognize that it does contain much to commend it.”

The RCA called on diaspora Jews not to interfere with the internal Israeli legislation, noting, incorrectly, that “North American Jews have long embraced the principle that the duly elected leadership of the State of Israel should not be subject to outside interference or pressure by other governments, religious bodies, or communal entities.”

The chorus of American voices against the bill is growing, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, whose members make up most of American Jewry but have only a small presence in Israel. Opponents are concerned by the bill’s clause that converts will be recognized as Jews only if they “accepted the Torah and the commandments in accordance with halacha,” which could exclude some converts from being eligible to obtain Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return because they would not be considered Jews by Israel.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, wrote an open letter to Netanyahu explaining why the bill will divide the Jewish community.

“The way to really ‘solve this problem’ is to have options for multiple streams and for the indigenous Israeli expressions that will only flower in a non-coercive system,” she wrote.

The Jewish Federations of North America said it supports the U.S. Senate letter opposing the Israeli bill.

“We welcome any expression of commitment from influential Jews to maintain the unity of the Jewish people and the dangers posed by this divisive legislation,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of JFNA’s Washington office.

In Washington, U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) have signed the Wyden letter.

“I am troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to Judaism to do so,” Levin told JTA.

The letter’s text has not been made public.

Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives also have expressed support for Wyden’s letter. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee that oversees the State Department and international programs, left a message for Netanyahu and spoke directly to Oren to voice her objection to the bill.

“Congresswoman Lowey believes Israel should continue to be a welcoming place for Jews, as it has been through its history,” said Matthew Dennis, Lowey’s spokesman. “She is concerned that this bill would alienate Jews around the world and risks weakening the sense of unity within the diaspora that is critical to Israel’s security.”

JTA

 
 

Conversion wars undermine Israel and its image

 

Pushing conversion bill is ‘the wrong fight at the wrong time’

 
 
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