It’s Time to Address the Problem​ of Undue Religious Control


Who won the latest round of the conversion wars? No one. In these wars, everybody loses.

To be sure, a broad-based coalition of American Jews — anchored by the federation system, and the Reform and Conservative movements — succeeded in convincing Israel's leaders to delay a vote on a controversial new conversion bill in the Knesset. This was a monumental accomplishment, averting the disaster that was certain to ensue if the legislation had been adopted.

Nonetheless, there is no reason for satisfaction. At this moment, Israel should be mobilizing her friends to confront the dangers posed by Iran. She should be responding to the outrageous anti-Israel actions of the United Nations. She should be working with the U.S. government to advance the cause of peace.

Instead, Israel has spent months engaged in an ugly battle with American Jewish leadership. American Jews committed to Israel's welfare had no choice but to join a public lobbying effort aimed at Israel's government.

The confrontation included new levels of nastiness. The sponsor of the legislation, David Rotem, was quoted in The New York Times as referring to American Jewish leaders as "absolute idiots." Worse yet, if history is any guide, we will learn nothing from this, and repeat the disastrous scenario next year or the year after that.

What's going on here?

Israeli leaders vastly underestimated how sensitive American Jews remain about religious matters in the State of Israel. The first conversion crisis was in the 1950s, and it was assumed in Israel that the most recent dispute was nothing more than one more round in a long battle.

Yet conversions in America are far more frequent now than they were a generation ago. Jews by choice are to be found in every community, and Jewish leaders are infuriated by legislation in Israel that they see as challenging the status of so many American Jews.

American Jews dislike religious fundamentalists who attempt to impose their will on others. The danger of religious extremism throughout the world is endlessly discussed in the media. Jewish men and women share the distress of all Americans that Israel, a democratic ally, has created a coercive religious monopoly that limits the religious freedom of its citizens.

When U.S. senators and members of Congress expressed their concerns about the bill, Israeli representatives here began to understand just how dangerous the situation had become. American lawmakers rarely speak out on internal Israeli politics, and if they were doing so now, it could only mean deep concern on the part of their constituents.

Israeli advocates of the bill attempted to convince American Jews by confusing them. The legislation was complicated and changed frequently. But a patronizing "You don't understand" approach didn't work this time.

True, few comprehended the bill's intricacies. But one thing about this legislation was truly important: It fundamentally altered the religious status quo by granting significant new powers in the realm of conversion to Israel's Chief Rabbinate. Such a change would reignite battles over conversion in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. American Jews understood this very well, and remained firm in their opposition.

It would have been preferable had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the bill in the spring, sparing the Jewish world the sorry spectacle of the past few months. Nonetheless, his decision last week to cast the bill as disastrous for the Jewish people was welcome. He was wise, too, in calling on Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky to devise an acceptable compromise.

But no one should harbor any illusions. The Israeli religious parties are intent on gaining absolute control over conversion, both in Israel and on matters that relate to the Law of Return. Any arrangement that gives them less than full control will never win their support.

As a Reform Jewish leader, I'd like to see Israel's religious monopoly swept away. I accept that for now, this simply is not possible. I do expect that additional support will be provided to Reform and Conservative schools and synagogues, but recognize that this will have to happen within the confines of the existing structure.

At the same time, the leaders of major non-Orthodox parties in Israel — Likud, Kadima and Labor — will need to agree that they will oppose conversion legislation, and any other significant change in the religious status quo demanded by the religious parties or their allies.

Such an understanding should have been reached 30 years ago, but each of the major parties has been reluctant to cede ground that might be exploited by its rivals in future coalition negotiations.

What is different is the terrible experience we just had. At a time when Israel is especially vulnerable, she upset her supporters, gladdened her enemies, played out in the general media and even reached the U.S. Congress, causing dismay to all who love the Jewish state.

Perhaps Israel's leaders will finally understand: Religious extremism must be rejected, the sensitivities of world Jewry must be respected, coalition politics must be transcended, and Jewish unity must be affirmed. Neither the Jewish people nor the State of Israel can afford the heavy price of these ongoing religious crises.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.