Home > Ira Sharkansky, Israel > Israeli ‘conversion’ bill would not change status quo

Israeli ‘conversion’ bill would not change status quo

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–One of the attractions of living in Israel is the feeling of participation in the wider world of the Jewish people. It is also one of the problems.

An American friend sent me the following, which came to him from a non-Orthodox rabbi:
. . .  send a message to BIBI telling him that we LIBERAL JEWS in AMERICA are furious about this anti-Jewish Bill that will disenfranchise tens of thousands of American/Non-Israeli Jews who may not be able to prove that they have a Jewish mother (or, in fact don’t have one) or have had a conversion including Mikveh officiated by a Liberal Rabbi, who live strong Jewish lives and support Israel in peace and war; with their children and (l’havdil) their money.
This Rottem (sic) Law is a travesty.
PLEASE LOG ON TO THE LETTER TO PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU and let him and all Israel know that we LIBERALS are just as “HAREDI-in awe before God” as the Black Hats! We will fight this law “with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our might”.

Oy gevalt is an appropriate response. Not to the abomination that the letter wants to prevent, but to the letter itself as a symptom of yet another brouhaha among the Jews. And one that focuses on what a rational assessment (i.e., mine) indicates is nothing at all.

The issue is a draft of a law promoted by an Orthodox Knesset Member, which does not change the status quo or touch the issues raised by excitable Americans, and has already been assigned to a burial plot by the prime minister as something that does not merit even a symbolic annoyance of overseas friends.
As best as I can understand this murky corner of Jewish politics, what is happening is another expression of Jewish paranoia, this time touching a segment of religious leaders who either want to expand their authority or fear that a competing segment of religious leaders want to expand their authority. 
If it’s not 100,000 Haredim clogging the streets of Jerusalem in defense of ethnic segregation, it is God knows how many non-Orthodox rabbis clogging Jewish mailboxes in defense of what they want, but do not understand. Not only would the bill change little or nothing in Israel, but it could not “disenfranchise tens of thousands of American/Non-Israeli Jews.” Those Jews have never been franchised in Israel. Presumably they are franchised in their home countries, well beyond the jurisdiction of the Israeli Knesset.
Next in line are non-Orthodox women wanting to dance with the Torah at the Western Wall, against Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox rabbis charged with keeping order at the Wall as they see fit.
Meanwhile it is the secular majority of Israeli Jews who pay most of the taxes and do much of the military service to keep this place available as a site for disputes among religious Jews who feel they know the word of the Lord.
(It is true that the Orthodox Religious Zionists are doing a disproportionate amount of national defense, but they have a political agenda that adds to our problems.)

We welcome the feeling of overseas Jews that they are part of us, appreciate their help with other governments, and the money they contribute. My own preference is for donations to universities and hospitals rather than Jewish settlement in Arab neighborhoods. However, there are different interests and Israel’s own rules of the game. As a democracy, numbers compete with the substance of arguments for officials’ attention. Non-Orthodox religious Jews are a small minority here, without their own party in the Knesset. They should not count on the help of secular Israeli Jews. Some secular Jews may identify with the non-Orthodox, but others have no interest in any religious arguments, whether they are Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative.

Former Knesset Member Haim Ramon said that Israelis are either religious or secular, and that the religious are Orthodox. He said that non-Orthodox religious Jews should not expect to influence Israel without moving here in their hundreds of thousands. A secular friend said pretty much the same thing, “The synagogue that I do not go to is an Orthodox synagogue.”
Israelis generally oppose one or another policy followed by the government currently in power, but put up with the  balance of interests that prevails.
Secular Israelis must tolerate the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox because they have the numbers. However, secular Israelis have enough numbers to keep the religious in check.   
The proposed legislation that provoked the latest campaign by non-Orthodox rabbis deals with the authority of conversion to Judaism in Israel. It would continue the status quo by giving that authority to the Official Rabbinate, which is Orthodox. Individuals converted outside of Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis would be recognized as Jews by the State, and given all the rights of Jews with respect to immigration. They might have trouble marrying in Israel, insofar as the Rabbinate deals with that process, but Cyprus is a short flight away. Lots of secular Israelis live well, despite having to choose, or wanting to choose, a secular marriage performed outside of Israel. It may not be ideal, and even annoying or insulting, but it is manageable. And the country is generous with respect to the rights provided to couples who do not bother with any ceremony. Those in the know might remember the provision of religious law that considers a couple married who are known by their neighbors to live together.
Israel is a good place, without meeting all the criteria of Paradise. I welcome the nomination of countries that do qualify.

Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University
  1. Leo
    July 22, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Letters and other expressions of disagreement to PM Netanyahu are OK but it is my believe that the liberal Jewish world needs to get organized and help to fight this bill in the Israeli Parliament and high courts. All these efforts take money and I do propose to raise funds to help fight this bill and further the agenda to confront those that have been working since 1948 to limit the freedom of religion of Jews all over, not only in Israel.

  2. July 18, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Thank you, Judah, for your remarks. The professor chooses to live in a box which is continually getting smaller but he doesn’t seem to mind. As long as they are in Israel, secular Israelis live within a flow of a Jewish culture. One can feel when it is Shabbat or a Chag. When they leave Israel, secular Israelis look for some Jewish connection because the surrounding culture is not there to provide them with the feel and flow of Jewish time. They also realize that their Israeliness does not fully translate or can be handed down to their children who they are raising in non-Jewish countries similar to how the yiddishness of the generation that immigrated to the US between 1880 and 1920 attenuated greatly with the next generation who were trying hard to make lives for themselves in the new country. This should raise a question as to whether the identity and value systems of secular Israelis are as strong and as enduring as the likes of the professor would like us to believe or it is just a situational identity of people who down deep have a very low vibrational connection to Judaism and Jewishness. I don’t necessarily believe that this is the case but the question is worth considering. Maybe the professor is right. The chief rabbinate does not need any oversight. Two years ago they almost overturned conversions performed over the past 1o years because one woman who converted is no longer living an Orthodox life. It’s beneficial to have folks in positions of power who have little regard for how legal decisions and overturning legal decisions impact people’s lives, especially those who underwent huge changes to make a significant change in their lifestyles and value systems. When my wife and I got married two years ago, a close friend recommended that we get married by an Orthodox rabbi to ensure that our marriage would be fully recognized down the road in Israel as well. We considered it but after doing some research we realized that every modern Orthodox rabbi in the United States had the potential of being nullified as a halakhic authority by the “sages” in Israel. They had already started deeming which rabbis were “kosher” and which were not acceptable to be msadrei kiddushin (authorized officiants at Jewish weddings). Professor Sharkansky, sit by and don’t do anything about the conversion bill. You may need to scrunch down a little more to continue to fit into the box in which you have decided to put yourself. But, hey, when things get tougher, we’ll ship it off to Cyprus. It’s not a big deal.

  3. Judah Anschauer
    July 17, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    The professor is right in an inverse sort of way. For example, he admits that the traditional Orthodox have a monopoly on religious authority in Israel, but neglects to mention that this monopoly came about through Ben-Gurion’s historic mistake in believing that Judaism as a religion was on the way out, and would be extinct in the State of Israel within a decade or two. This was because of Ben-Gurion’s deep error in not understanding the societal function of religion-in-general:
    Every society is built upon unprovable assumptions about what is right and wrong, good and bad. For example, we cannot logically prove that the Golden Rule is true; we rely mainly on natural intuition to support it. But we also rely on the ongoing affirmation of such rules by the society’s institutions, particularly by the institution of religion.
    Ben-Gurion and his cohorts believed that secular nationalism would be an adequate substitute for traditional religion; but nationalism does not tell us why spouses should be loyal to each other, or why children should be loyal to parents and vice versa. So, despite modernist secularism’s expectation that religion was dying, history (and modern sociology) have shown that it is essential to social existence. Furthermore, if it is an international religion, it is essential to international support for the nation that identifies with that religion.
    So the monster that Israel’s founders created by granting a monopoly on the Jewish religion to an obsolete clique of pietists has now become a major barrier to social solidarity within the nation, and to international support from those of that religion outside the nation. Professor Sharkansky, living in a protected social category within Israel, probably does not sense the ongoing diminution– of Jewish unity and of support for Israel– that has been taking place for decades now, and is currently worsening.

    • Ira Sharkansky
      July 17, 2010 at 8:32 pm

      The reasons for early concessions to the Orthodox are different from those to the ultra-Orthodox. Both are more complex than Judah writes, and have been treated extensively. He is right w/r declining Jewish unity, but that, too has several roots only one of which is the feeling of overseas non-Orthodox Jews that they should influence from their homes what happens in another country. Moreover, the issue of “Jewish unity” has had ups and downs, some of them dramatic, over the course of at least 2,500 years. It reflects a culture that is inherently argumentative, and has been spread over distant places for at least that long.

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