Reactions in the American Jewish community to the conversion bill in Israel are somewhat misplaced. Criticism has focused on the fact that the bill, by granting the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly over conversions here, will damage Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry and fragment the Jewish people.
Writing in the Forward, columnist J.J. Goldberg suggested that the bill is “stirring up the most serious crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations in a decade,” and an op-ed in The New York Times last weekend noted that it was preposterous for Israel to be alienating Diaspora Jews when it is supposedly under threat of being "wiped off the map." Furthermore, Reform and Conservative rabbis in the US have said this would directly harm Israel’s security and financial aid.
Indeed, much of the commentary on the issue has focused on how bizarre it is for a bill like this to have surfaced at a time when Israel is vulnerable on so many fronts, and needs all the help it can get from Diaspora Jewry. American Jews cannot comprehend why Israel would risk disaffecting its greatest source of support by adopting measures that would actually make it more difficult to join the Jewish people.
But it’s a mistake to frame this issue as being primarily about Israel-Diaspora relations, and linking it to the perception of Israel as threatened and victimized. The message conveyed by such analysis is as follows: Israel should allow for as many people as possible to be considered Jewish because it needs all the Jews (read: Israel supporters) it can get.
This overlooks the root of the problem sparked by the bill: Israel, unlike the United States, does not separate religion and state, despite the fact that its Declaration of Independence guarantees freedom of religion. The Israel Religious Action Center was founded precisely in order to fight for non-Orthodox rights in Israel and has for years been trying to attain government funding for Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel, among other things.
There is a constant struggle in the Jewish world over who has authority to determine what constitutes “true” or “authentic” Judaism, something rabbinical authorities, religious movements and various communities have struggled with throughout Jewish history, from Baruch Spinoza to Brother Daniel.
Fundamentally flawed systemAmerican Jews' demand that Israel uphold freedom of religion – something that would necessarily require it to recognize non-Orthodox conversions – is certainly understandable, but the reasoning nonetheless misses the point. Israel has structured its legal system in such a way that parties in government have the right to determine not only who it will let through its borders, but also what kind of Jews it will recognize.
Writing in The Times about the conversion bill, Alana Newhouse stated that it has been a mistake for American Jews to stand idly by for so long on this matter because “it has been interpreted by Israeli politicians as a green light to throw basic questions of Jewish identity into the pot of coalition politics.”
What she missed is that Israel has been operating precisely on the notion that Jewish identity is a matter of coalition politics. This is evident from the country’s perpetual limbo between allowing Orthodox elements to determine civilian laws (and thus edging towards theocracy) and guaranteeing freedom of religion and equal rights, as any credible democracy must do.
American Jews may fear that an explicit call for separation of religion and state in Israel would threaten to undermine the state’s “Jewish character” and the privileges it bestows to Jews in Israel and to Diaspora Jewry, through the Law of Return. This is the same fear that prompts Israel to keep the definition of its “Jewish” character murky. Indeed, it is not clear what it means for Israel to simultaneously separate religion and state and remain a “Jewish” state.
However, if American Jews want to get involved on this issue, it is not enough to rally criticism against single-issue laws like the conversion bill. Rather, they must go to the heart of the matter: It is not about insisting that Judaism must be pluralistic, but about the prerogative of a state apparatus to legislate such matters in the first place.
The conversion bill is therefore just one in a long line of examples that expose a fundamentally flawed system in which the State of Israel has yet to decide if and how to be both Jewish and democratic. Sixty-two years into Israel’s existence, this is still the most important question the country faces.
While this author does not necessarily have the answer (or room to provide it here), it is clear that American Jewry has a stake in this issue, and as such, should push for frank discussion with Israel in which a spade can finally be called a spade.
Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American journalist and academic of Jewish history and identity politics. She resides in Israel.
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