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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

 
 

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

 
 

Can Netanyahu accept new settlement freeze? U.S. might have to sweeten the deal

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here at his weekly cabinet meeting on Oct. 4, reportedly is trying to convince cabinet members to agree to extend the west bank settlement freeze by 60 days. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Following reports of an unprecedented U.S. offer of a host of assurances in return for a 60-day extension of the freeze on building in west bank settlements, some political analysts are wondering why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not grabbed the deal with both hands.

According to the reports, President Obama is offering Netanyahu pledges that the United States will:

News Analysis

• Not ask for additional extensions on the partial ban on settlement building, which expired Sept. 26;

• Commit to using the U.S. veto to prevent U.N. recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state, if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations fail to bear fruit;

• “Accept the legitimacy” of Israel’s security needs as defined by the Netanyahu government — understood as referring to Netanyahu’s demand for a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, in the eastern west bank;

• Broker talks with neighboring Arab states on a “regional security structure” — a nod to Netanyahu’s desire for cooperation on confronting Iran;

• Enhance Israel’s security through the sale of a second squadron of state-of-the-art stealth F-35 fighters and space cooperation, including access to U.S. satellite early warning systems.

The price: Israel must agree to extend for 60 days the recently expired west bank building freeze.

If Netanyahu spurns the offer, Israel not only would lose out on all the above, but the Americans would come out publicly in support of the 1967 borders as the basis for all future territorial negotiations with the Palestinians.

On its face, the deal would seem like a no-brainer for Netanyahu to take. So why hasn’t he?

For one thing, it’s not only up to Netanyahu. He needs the approval of a settlement freeze extension from his 29-member cabinet or at least his 15-member security cabinet, and he doesn’t have enough votes yet in those bodies. While by most accounts Netanyahu is inclined to take the deal and is pushing for cabinet members to approve it, the United States first might have to sweeten the pot.

The U.S. offer followed intensive negotiations in Washington between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and an American team led by veteran Middle East adviser Dennis Ross. The idea was to affirm the U.S. commitments in a presidential letter to Netanyahu to persuade him and pro-settlement members of his government to go along with a new temporary freeze — and in so doing keep alive the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks launched in early September. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to quit the talks if the freeze is not extended.

For now, the Israeli prime minister is being pressed by cabinet hard-liners not to accept the American package as is. They warn that it is all very general and that much of it will not stand up in practice.

The hard-liners are suspicious, too, of Barak’s motives. They believe Barak is behind the American offer because he fears that if the peace talks with the Palestinians break down, his Labor Party would be forced to withdraw from the government. Such a move would cost Barak the post of defense minister and, in all likelihood, his political future.

As things stand, Netanyahu does not have the votes for the deal.

In the full 29-member cabinet, 14 ministers are for extending the freeze and 15 are against. In the 15-member security cabinet the count is seven for and eight against, and in the unofficial forum of seven top advisers, three are for extending the freeze and four are against. In Netanyahu’s governing coalition, without the support of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and Likud hard-liners, the prime minister would have the support of fewer than 40 members of the 120-member Knesset.

Netanyahu’s greatest political fear is of a repeat of 1999, when after making concessions to the Palestinians at Wye Plantation, he lost his right-wing political support base and was roundly defeated by Barak in the ensuing election. This time, the scenario that Netanyahu wants to avoid is accepting an American package, going ahead with the peacemaking, and then losing the next election to Kadima’s Tzipi Livni.

Even if Netanyahu could jettison the pro-settler parties from his coalition and bring in Kadima — changing the balance of power in the government and the Knesset in favor of pro-negotiation parties, and accepting the U.S. package — it could cost him the premiership.

Netanyahu therefore is being extra careful about making any moves that could lose him large swaths of what he sees as his natural constituency.

The Israeli prime minister also has a major strategic concern. According to confidants, he fears that as soon as any new 60-day freeze ends, the Americans will put a “take it or leave it peace plan” of their own on the table. With the U.S. midterm elections over, Obama might feel able to publicly present parameters for a peace deal that Netanyahu would find impossible to accept.

Israel might then find itself totally isolated and under intolerable international pressure. That is a scenario Netanyahu hopes the current negotiations with the Americans will help him avoid.

So far, Netanyahu has spoken of ongoing “delicate” negotiations with the Americans and implied that much of what has been reported in the press is inaccurate.

As so often in the past, Netanyahu is caught between the U.S. administration and his right-leaning coalition. If he chooses his coalition, he risks losing the support of the current administration; if he chooses America, he fears he could lose his coalition and, with it, the premiership.

What Labor and Likud moderates reportedly are telling him is that it is not 1999, and that now he can have his cake and eat it, too: If he goes with the Americans and the peace process, he will win the next election hands down.

JTA

 
 

Not wild about Wilders?

Anti-Islam message has European Jewish leaders worried

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Populist Dutch politician Geert Wilders gets a standing ovation from a Berlin audience on Oct. 2. Toby Axelrod

BERLIN – Geert Wilders, the rock star of European politics, is riding the crest of a populist tsunami.

The pro-Israel founder of Holland’s Party of Freedom shouted that Islam is a threat to Germany’s identity, democracy, and prosperity, while his audience of 500 reacted with evangelical zeal, offering big-time applause and standing ovations.

“Stand by the side of those who are threatened by Islam, like the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens,” he exhorted the crowd.

This was not a Jewish event, though former Israeli Knesset member Eli Cohen of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party was a guest speaker.

Ethnic Germans made up much of the crowd Oct. 2 at the Hotel Berlin. Their chief bugaboo? The failure of Muslims to fit in to mainstream society.

Wilders allowed them to vent their frustration (critics would say racist views). And for the crowd, having an Israeli join them seemed to make things more kosher, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric has been associated typically with far-right extremists.

Wilders’ dismissal of “so-called ‘Islamophobia,’” as he calls it, also supports those who say the real problem is Muslim anti-Semitism.

In recent weeks several populist parties — including Wilders’ — have gained parliamentary seats or ministry positions in European countries. Even mainstream leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have decided to weigh in on “the Muslim integration problem.”

Pure politics, critics say.

So why are so many Jewish leaders in Europe not wild about Wilders and his ilk?

Populists “want a Sweden for the Swedes, France for the French, and Jews to Israel,” says Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress.

“Islamism certainly is a danger to the Jews and to Western democracy,” offers Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “The way to fight [Islamists] is not, however, to demonize and ostracize all Muslims.”

Ron van der Wieken, the chairman of Amsterdam’s liberal Jewish congregation, says that “perhaps more Jews support Wilders than they openly admit,” but “when his party fiercely opposes halal slaughter, kosher butchering will not exist much longer as well. And if headscarves would be forbidden, how about yarmulkes? And circumcision?”

In Germany, emotions also run high over another purveyor of populism, author Thilo Sarrazin, who was fired from the board of the German Central Bank because of his comments about Muslim inferiority and Jewish superiority.

Jewish leaders condemned Sarrazin’s remarks, but some Germans on the street, including some Jews, seem more forgiving. Meanwhile his book, “Germany Undoes Itself,” is a major best-seller.

“His analysis of the socio-political situation in Berlin is 110 percent correct,” retiree Georg Potzies, 64, says at Bleiberg’s kosher dairy restaurant here. “A large part of the Muslims — and he never said all of them — have no interest in integration. Just open your eyes in Berlin and you will see it.”

As for the supposedly higher Jewish IQ, “I found that very good,” Potzies adds, laughing.

“What he said was a provocation designed to wake people up,” says restaurateur Manuela Bleiberg, 56. Muslims living here “don’t have to totally assimilate, but they should keep German law.”

But Sarrazin is not really interested in integration, counters Jan Aaron Voss, 46, who runs a Jewish Internet portal.

“What he is really doing is pitting people from different groups against each other to incite them,” Voss says, “and that’s simply wrong.”

Populist doomsayers like Wilders predict a Muslim takeover of Europe, but experts says a gradual demographic shift is more likely. A 2005 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that about 5 percent of the EU population is Muslim, with the percentage growing because of higher birthrates among migrants and low birthrates among “native Europeans.”

The report concluded that “the successful integration of European Muslims is crucial to the future of Europe.”

Indeed, reports have shown there are serious challenges: language acquisition, unemployment, forced marriage, rare but horrific honor killings, and anti-Semitism, especially among young men.

But reports also show that most “foreigners” contribute to society, and only a tiny minority of Muslims in Europe are thought to identify with banned extremist movements, like the German al-Qaida cell that spawned the 9-11 terrorists. Yet some “native Europeans” persist in labeling, observers say.

“Youth of Turkish origin who were born here and have studied here feel they are being typecast,” said Cicek Bacik, a board member of the Turkish Association of Berlin-Brandenburg. “They sometimes have the feeling that they will always be considered foreign, that they will never be at home.”

They shouldn’t get too comfortable, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Cohen suggested at the Wilders event, which launched a new Freedom Party in Berlin.

“Muslims seem to be about to take over Europe,” Cohen said, stoking the audience. “Is that what you want?”

Increasing numbers of Europeans are embracing the message. And some Jewish leaders are worried.

“We are quite upset about having a party [in the Parliament] that says they are only addressing Muslims and immigration,” says Lena Posner, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. “History has taught us about where this can lead, and this is not necessarily good for the Jews.”

But what’s wrong with a pro-Israel party that highlights Muslim anti-Semitism, asks Kent Ekeroth, 29, a new legislator with the right-populist Swedish Democrats.

Ekeroth, whose mother is a Polish Jewish émigrée, admits that his party’s opposition to circumcision of minors and to the import of halal or kosher meat is “a sticking point.” But few Jews are observant, he says, “And we feel that if those adaptations are too much to handle, then Israel is an alternative.”

Europe’s Jews aren’t all about to move to Israel, but should they be a little more forgiving?

“It’s akin to the evangelical Christians,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. “On one hand they loved and embraced Israel. But on the other hand, we were not comfortable with their social or religious agenda.”

“Our goal has to be to build and help with the development of a moderate Islam that (Wilders) says doesn’t exist and can’t exist,” Daniel Pipes, a U.S. conservative pundit, says in a telephone interview. “So we are allies, but there is a significant difference.”

Maybe Wilders needs less treble and more bass, suggests Leon de Winter, a prominent Dutch Jewish novelist who publicly defended Wilders’ right to compare the Koran to “Mein Kampf.”

“What I like about (Wilders is that) he is a true friend of Israel and a true friend of America,” de Winter says in a call from his home in California. His “opponents call him a racist and a Nazi, all of these things that he is clearly not. Still, often his ideas are over the top and I hope he will soften the way he expresses himself because the themes he touches on are really serious.”

Pipes hopes populist parties will drop their “neo-fascist conspiratorial ideas, strange economic ideas, anti-Semitic and racist ideas” and develop broader platforms.

“What is serving them [now] is to talk about Islam and related subjects,” he says. “And they are attracting votes because ... established parties are not dealing with the issues that are on people’s minds.”

JTA

 
 
 
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