We won’t turn the other cheek, US Jewish leaders say
Amid threats to withdraw donations to Israel following the government’s approval of the Conversion Bill and decision to freeze the plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, visiting leaders of America’s Jewish organizations say Prime Minister Netanyahu must decide ‘if he wants a pluralistic state or a halachic state.’
The children answered a few questions to pledge their desire to join the Jewish people, and with their family members beside them, they signed a document stating that they knew this wasn’t a state conversion and that they were aware of the fact that the move was in the midst of a legal procedure. The older ones then recited the Shema Yisrael prayer, and they were all sent to immerse in a ritual bath.
In a special robe, they entered the chilly water which wrapped their bodies. Three religious judges entered and dipped the children’s heads in the water gently and carefully, and when they came out of the mikveh, they shouted out loud: “Mazal tov, you are Jewish!” And so, at the end of a sensitive and special ceremony, seven converts joined the Jewish people with the help of the Giyur Ka’Halacha organization.
The conversion was performed precisely and particularly at the height of a clash between the world Jewry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who—through the approval of the Conversion Bill gave the Haredim and the Chief Rabbinate last week the final monopoly over conversion procedures and over determining who is Jewish, while at the same time freezing the plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, which would have given Reform and Conservative Jews a foothold at the holy site.
“We wanted to make it clear to everyone that it’s business as usual,” Giyur Ka’Halacha co-founder Rabbi Seth Farber tells me at the end of the emotionally moving ceremony. “At the height of the storm, we performed an act of sanctity, showing that we have confidence in our actions and in the rightness of our way.”
Farber was born in the United States and made aliyah several years ago. The conversion offered by his organization is private, strict, but non-Orthodox, and is not subject to the Chief Rabbinate. It is performed by city rabbis and yeshiva heads from the central of Religious Zionism.
"Although I am a certified and Orthodox rabbi, I believe there is no room to leave conversions exclusively in the hands of the Haredim. We petitioned the Jerusalem District Court, demanding recognition for about 500 conversions we performed in the past year and a half, because the new law cancels these conversions immediately. These are Israeli citizens, who feel part of the Jewish people, who make Kiddush every Friday evening and even study in state religious schools. Their father is Jewish, but their mother isn’t.”
According to Rabbi Farber, there are hundreds of thousands of these Jews in the world. Billions have been invested in their conversion, and now the state is going to reject them and drive them away.
“Do you know that 10 percent of those who identify as Jews in the world have neither a Jewish mother nor a Jewish father? As far as I’m concerned, they can set organized rules and procedures for conversion, but they shouldn’t reject conversions. It scares me to think about what will happen if we hand the keys to the Jewish people over to a handful of Haredim. The road they are taking now guarantees that we will lose a large part of the people.”
Western Wall reconquered by Haredim
In a cosmic coincidence, which is probably only possible in Israeli politics, 120 representatives of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors arrived in Jerusalem early last week, a moment before the government made its outrageous decision. The timing was completely incidental: The distinguished representatives came for a festive conference marking the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification. They took over the city’s David Citadel Hotel and prepared for a week dedicated to strengthening their connection with Israel and increasing donations. The preparations in the hotel’s main banquet hall for a festive dinner in the prime minister’s presence were underway, orchestrated by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who is known as “the leader” and “the prime minister of the Diaspora Jewry” by the audience who came here and admires him.
And then the Israeli government dropped the bomb. In what appears to be an example of foolishness and bad timing, it froze the egalitarian prayer space plan which some of the leaders who came here had been working on for the past few years, with Netanyahu’s overt support, and approved the Conversion Bill in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which cements the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over the answer to the question “who is a Jew?”
The Jewish organizations’ leaders convened for an emergency meeting at an improvised conference room on the luxury hotel’s first floor. They decided then and there to cancel the prime minister’s invitation to the dinner, to hold a Havdalah ceremony performed by Reform and Conservative Jews outside the prime minister’s residence on Saturday evening, and to urgently call on the leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to come to Israel immediately. The emergency delegation, led by President Lillian Pinkus, landed in Israel last Wednesday.
“We aren’t turning the other cheek,” says Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, the largest and most important Jewish federation in the United States, which represents the 1.7 million Jews living in New York, New Jersey and the surrounding areas. This place is the source of donations amounting to $200 million that arrive in Israel every year.
“What happened is terrible,” Goldstein says in an apparent storm of emotions. “Your people don’t understand that most of the Jews here, even the AIPAC leaders, are Reform and Conservative. They are the people who dedicate their lives to defending Israel. They are the people who care. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision basically places them outside the fence—now of all times, when Israel is under attack and needs them. Now, a single Jewish stream will keep controlling the prayer at the Western Wall, restricting the rights of millions of Jews from the Diaspora.”
As for the conversion issue, the Haredim argue that if Reform and Conservative Jews get the right to convert, in 50 years from now we won’t know who really is Jewish. Aren’t you concerned by that?
“I respect the Haredi way, but they are already refusing to let their children marry even national-religious Jews. This decision will exclude millions of Jews around the world, mainly in the US, so why should people donate to and support those who don’t recognize them.”
Have you seen reactions from people who have already decided to withdraw their donations?
“Absolutely. Immediately after the Israeli government’s decision was published, I received an email from one of the key donors in the UJA-Federation of New York. The subject was ‘Outrage,’ and the email itself said: ‘We are done with this whole thing of sending money to the Jewish Agency or to any other program in Israel.’ He concluded his email by writing: ‘It’s sad to see everything we have worked for together falling apart.’ And this is not the only email I have received in the same spirit.”
This joins Itamar Eichner’s recent report that a donor of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces organization in the US, who donates about $1 million to the State of Israel every year, has announced that he is considering withdrawing the donation altogether.
You attended the meeting with the prime minister, and he explained to you that the plan was just frozen and that everything would work out fine. Do you believe him?
“I’m not going to talk about it.”
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, has been shaken up too since hearing about the government’s decision. Silverman, the leader of the body which brings together all 500 Jewish communities in the US, understands that it is going to be very difficult for him from now on to raise funds for Israel, for the Jewish Agency, for Taglit-Birthright and for different projects in Israel.
We sit in Sharansky’s improvised operations room. The place is full of plastic chairs and stands which were erected in a rush in the heart of the luxury hotel, not far from the Old City.
“We were surprised,” Silverman admits. “There was no warning that this was about to happen, especially with us being here. It has caused terrible frustration. A bridging process of almost five years, on the Western Wall, has been frozen and may be cancelled. And as for the conversion, that’s the red line as far as we’re concerned. Letting a minority determine who is Jewish? It’s more than a slap in the face. It’s nothing less than an earthquake, and there’s no way of knowing what shock waves it will create. Ask Sharansky if he’s disappointed.”
“To say I’m disappointed about this is putting it mildly,” Sharansky says. “The way I see it, it’s ironic that on the 50th anniversary of the Western Wall’s liberation we are being informed that the Western Wall has been reconquered by the Haredim.”
So did the prime minister lie to you?
“No, he’s simply a politician,” Sharansky smiles.
“We understand the reality he lives in,” Silverman adds. “We’ll always support Israel, but we won’t give up. We will reach every minister and every Knesset member. I have no complaints to (Shas leader Aryeh) Deri or to (United Torah Judaism Minister Yakov) Litzman. They’re representing their public and Deri is saying exactly what he thinks. But what about the secular government members? They enter the coalition, and from that moment they stop voting their conscience.”
Like being kicked out of the country club
Last week, they walked through the Knesset’s long corridors, talking to every MK and minister who would meet with them. Some refused. They didn’t try meeting with the Haredi lawmakers. “There’s no way to speak to them,” said a source involved in the talks.
They had a particularly long meeting with Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who said to them: “I’m with you. I understand the distress… But if we do what you want, it will be misused to convert the Eritreans, and that’s not your intention. Hire lawyers and submit a compromise proposal to us that will guarantee that it won’t happen.”
Following their meeting with Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked decided to wait before convening the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to discuss Yisral Beiteinu’s appeal against the Conversion Bill, to give the parties time to come up with a compromise.
“We were shocked, but we were glad it happened while we’re here in Israel,” says Michael Siegal, the recently elected chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors. “It also allowed us to respond immediately, because we were all washed into a whirlwind, threatening to drown us all.”
How will this affect donations to Israel and the Jewish Agency?
“We support people, not a government. Our job is to ensure that the donations keep flowing in. But the political system here must understand that the Diaspora Jews want to be recognized and that there will be an immediate counterreaction to anything you do.”
His friends overseas were not as cautious and polite. Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, was quoted by The Jewish Journal as saying that “the federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community. We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position.”
The Jewish organization leaders estimated that the wave of harsh responses would begin when Jewish homes in the US started receiving the local Jewish press’ weekend papers, as well as during the Shabbat prayers at the synagogues. As reported by Yedioth Ahronoth last week, one of the American Jewish leaders threatened that “we won’t keep fighting for you in Congress or donating millions forever if you keep abusing us.”
Siegal clarifies that the ball is now in Netanyahu’s court. “The prime minister promised us that the final word has yet to be said.”
Do you believe him?
“Netanyahu came to speak to us before our general assembly in the US and said, ‘One wall, one people.’ Over the past few years, while we were working on the compromise, he kept saying: ‘Trust me, I just need some more time.’ And now it has all blown up in our faces in such a cruel manner. He also said, ‘What do you think, that if (Labor leader Isaac) Herzog or (Yesh Atid leader Yair) Lapid were prime minister they would have done things differently?’ So I don’t know what they would do, but the prime minister has to decide if he wants a pluralistic state or a halachic state. The last time we checked, most people in Israel don’t want a halachic state. And who the hell will fight the BDS? Why should young people in universities stand by Israel if Israel isn’t standing by them and is giving in to political pressure?”
One of the US Jewry leaders said off the record, “It’s the same Bibi who brags that he knows the US Jewry better than anyone else and that his second wife, Fleur, was converted in a Conservative process. How amusing.”
David Koschitzky, chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA World Board of Trustees, which unites all Jewish communities outside the US, is finding it difficult to hide his anger: “This is a strong hint that we are important to Bibi politically abroad, but we’re not the audience he speaks to here. Well, he should remember that most Jews don’t live in Israel. If Israel is called the state of the Jews, is it only for the Jews who live in Israel? Am I not a good enough Jew for you?”
Sounds like there are going to be consequences.
“We represent an entire public that has received a slap in the face from the prime minister. That’s what I’m going to tell my congregations. And yes, there will be consequences. It will affect the Taglit organization, for example, which brings to Israel people whose father isn’t Jewish but who live as Jews, and we wanted to bring them closer. Now, the Israeli government has decided that they aren’t Jews. I’m already predicting that it’s quite possible that those who support Taglit and donate to this wonderful project, and there are five or six key donors, will withdraw their support. And it will also seriously affect the power of AIPAC, which needs donations as well. Why would anyone support an institution which is incapable of providing what they have asked for? They won’t want to donate to a country that disregards them, just like they won’t pay a membership fee to a country club that won’t admit them.”