Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

I prefer the first amendment

There are two bills in the Knesset that, to my mind, may begin to expose the cracks in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The first is the bill about conversation, about which there’s been ample coverage of late.
The official statement put out by the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements reads:

The bill threatens to alter the Law of Return and consolidate conversion power into the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Both of these results could have devastating effects on the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry and thus on the broader unity of the Jewish people. Such concentration of power in favor of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry effectively negates the roles of the non-Orthodox movements both within Israel and abroad, sending the message that only the Orthodox have a place within our Homeland.

As I wrote yesterday, liberal Jews already have less religious freedom than the Orthodox in Israel (why the Reform movement doesn’t make the work of Anat Hoffman a central pillar of its Israel education baffles me and is a subject for another post). Here we have a bill that, if passed, would make it clear to the world what Rabbanut-and-therefore-government of Israel thinks of liberal Jewry, in Israel or abroad. I think in many cases, liberal Jews, out of either ignorance or ideology, support policies in Israel which go against their beliefs about human rights and democracy (not to mention against the way that they practice their Judaism), and I almost cynically hope that this bill will increase the cognitive dissonance amongst the general public.
Much less has been written about the equally worrying bill to outlaw human rights groups which criticize the Israeli government. Noam at Promised Land comments:

From all the anti-democratic measures I’ve been writing about here, this is by far the most extreme. Even if a mild version of this law passes, defending human rights in Israel – a difficult task as is – will become practically impossible. Merely proposing this bill will harm grassroots efforts and freedom of speech, as both the media and the public are becoming more and more hostile to people and groups who are portrayed as unpatriotic or anti-Israeli.
Much of “the case for Israel” is based on the notion that this is a democracy – the only one in a hostile environment. But Israel is changing. This is not something that you notice on a one week vacation in Jerusalem or from on the Tel Aviv beach, but if you pay close attention to the news, you can easily notice it.
People are harassed and delegitimized for the things they say and because of their views. Foreign activists are arrested and deported. The Shin Beit, Israel’s security agency, stated recently before the court that it sees its job as to supervise and follow the actions of Israeli left-wing organizations even when they are not suspected in breaking the law. This statement was approved by the former Government’s attorney, Meni Mazoz, who also heads the prosecution in Israel.

Read his whole post here.
Noam also cites a recent poll published in Haaretz that most of the Israeli population does not think that Israeli human rights organizations should be allowed to operate freely. Gideon Levy shared his thoughts on the subject a few days ago in Haaretz.
I don’t know what it will take for the American Jewish masses to see the truth of what is going on here. Maybe these laws will be a step in that direction.

12 thoughts on “I prefer the first amendment

  1. You write “why the Reform movement doesn’t make the work of Anat Hoffman [IRAC] a central pillar of its Israel education baffles me and is a subject for another post”
    I’m not clear on your meaning on this point, so look forward to reading your future post on this issue.
    When you speak of the Reform Movement’s “Israel education”, what aspects of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism are you referring to?
    Joel Katz

  2. Try as they might to deny it, Reform Jews are an oppressed minority in Israel. They have a great deal in common with Palestinians, peaceniks and ant-Zionists – they will benefit from a ‘great weakening’ of the ideological institutions of the state.
    I would love to see every last dime of Reform money sent Israel’s way, including tourist dollars, used not only to strengthen Reform institutions there, but to openly and actively subvert the ideological institutions themselves.
    Fund more centers for Orthodox youth seeking to drop out. Pay for investigative journalism uncovering misdeeds of the yeshiva world, financial and sexual. Send representatives of interfaith conferences around the world highlighting the lack of religious equality in Israel. Support efforts by Christians and Muslims to demand equal footing.

  3. Joel –
    I grew up and taught in the Reform movement in the US, and learned almost nothing about modern Israel. I asked the Rabbi of the Reform synagogue where I used to work how they dealt with the issue of the place of Reform Judaism in Israel today on their teen trip, and I was told they had a homestay with Israeli Reform teens in Haifa, but the subject wasn’t dealt with in any substantive way.
    I don’t have evidence to support this, but my gut is that Reform youth in America don’t learn much about the challenges faced by Reform Jews in Israel (marriage, issues of egalitarianism, state funding, the Rabbanut, etc.).
    I think I may have been unclear. When I refer to the Reform Movement, I’m talking about the URJ.

  4. The Shin Beit, Israel’s security agency, stated recently before the court that it sees its job as to supervise and follow the actions of Israeli left-wing organizations even when they are not suspected in breaking the law
    There was a time when the Shin Bet wasn’t Israel’s West Bank police agency, but those days are long gone.

  5. Jonathan1, Shabak has always harassed leftists. And today is not worse than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago.
    There are still folks who remember cavity searches and searches prompted by a desire to harass. Arab university students studying abroad would get singled out if they were politically active with the Communists.
    Shin Bet, as an agency, was created specifically to control the threat posted by the Arab minority remaining in Israel and those seeking to advance the rights of Palestinians.
    The expansion in duties is really towards the right, which was accelerated by the Rabin assassination.
    I was threatened by a shabak agent in Tel Aviv one time. They were trying to prevent me and some others from erasing racist graffiti in Hebron. In the end we were all arrested.

  6. @JG. Ok. I was talking about before 1967, and how the situation in the territories since then has f-cked up the Shabak, the way it’s f-cked up so many other things in Israel. Maybe you know more about the Shabak, though.

  7. This has been going on for decades. The reform and conservatives want recognition in Israel They’re refused. The reform and conservatives say this refusal will affect how their congregants feel about Israel. Nothing happens.
    (Repeat again and again)
    BTW why are the reconstructionists included here? There are no reconstructionist congregations in Israel-check their website) (but if you’re in the Netherland Antilles, say hello). Lots of reconstructionist rabbis are anti-Israel, anyways.

  8. Back before the disengagement, I, as an 18 year old American kid staying not far from the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, had my apartment turned over in search for weapons as I was interrogated because I was suspected of plotting to attack Ariel Sharon. My Yeshiva (not a particularly extremist one) classmates – Israeli and American citizens – were arrested outside of a movie theater in Herzylyia because they suspected of plotting a protest. They were kept overnight without being charged of a crime, given no food, and cavity searched. The Americans were not permitted to call the US consulate and the records of their arrest were destroyed.
    That the left thinks they hold the monopoly on getting abused by Israeli law enforcement is contradicted by reality.

  9. We may have read a lot about the conversion bill – but there can never be too much said about an issue that can effect so many.
    Pulling the wool over our eyes
    Posted by Rabbi Andrew Sacks
    MK David Rotem has just returned from a trip to North America where he was accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Their mission was simple – or so they thought.
    Rotem has drafted legislation ostensibly intended to ease the conversion process here in Israel. The target population is the approximately 340,000 citizens, mainly from the Former Soviet Union, who came to Israel under the Law of Return but are not Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law). He asked for support of his bill.
    The Law of Return allows for those with a single Jewish grandparent, along with immediate family, to claim citizenship. Many of these people consider themselves Jewish, and some would have definitely appreciated a process allowing them to officially convert to Judaism. Without an official conversion they still live as Jews. They study with Jews. They are members of the various youth movements. They faithfully serve in the army.
    They are, however, unable to marry (there is no civil marriage in Israel – do not be deceived by the recent so-called civil marriage bill, also authored by Rotem) and they are buried outside of the main Jewish cemeteries.
    There was a time when many would have wished to convert. But the process, through the official Chief Rabbinate, has become so demeaning and humiliating that few are still interested.
    Rotem claims that his bill would reopen the doors to conversion by allowing local rabbis (of course all Orthodox) to convene conversion courts. What he fails to mention is that most of those 340,000 have been so turned off that it is unlikely that they will even apply. And, even if they do, the local Beit Din may have its converts recognized only with the approval of the Chief Rabbi (good luck!).
    Rotem also seeks to “grant authority” over conversion to the country’s Chief Rabbinate. The law does not do so today. In effect, he wants to grant the Rabbinate much broader powers.
    He does not mention the non-Orthodox options, thus casting those movements aside.
    A statement was issued jointly by the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements:
    MK Rotem believes his proposed legislation would rapidly open the door to a faster conversion process. We respectfully disagree. Not only would this legislation fail to achieve his forecasted result, the collateral damage to the 85% of world Jewry who are not Orthodox (and perhaps others who are) would be disastrous to the unity of the Jewish people…”
    The law, as it is currently worded, would likely lead the Interior Ministry (headed by the zealously Orthodox Shas party) to refuse recognition of Masorti/Conservative and Reform conversions. This would mark a severe change in the current situation and a slap in the face to those who seek to convert yet understand that there are “seventy (i.e. many) faces to the Torah” and all “are the words of the living God.”
    I can already hear the talkbackers saying, “Good. The Conservative and Reform have destroyed American Jewry, we don’t need them in Israel.” But let us be reminded (beside the stupidity of this notion) that Israel is a democracy and not a theocracy to be run by mullahs masquerading as rabbis. In all true democracies the rights of minorities must be protected.
    Beyond all of this, the bill seems to allow for people who enter Israel and then convert to still be ineligible for citizenship under the Law of Return. Thus converts may be treated as second class Jews.
    The feelings of disconnect of much of Diaspora Jewry toward Israel are growing stronger. We need to narrow this gap rather than fan the fires of divisiveness as this law surely will.
    The debate over “who is a Jew” has slowly ebbed as the Israeli courts have recognized the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry. Now is not the time to move backward.
    MK Rotem met with many of the North American Jewish community leaders in an attempt to convince them that his proposed legislation would be good for all and harmful to none.
    He failed to gain their support not because Diaspora Jewry disagrees with the aim of opening the doors wider to those who wish to become halachically Jewish. He failed because his arguments in support of his bill were specious and lacking in merit.
    Ah, but who are these leaders who sit in the comfort that is America and dictate Israeli policy, you might ask?
    They are the very people who back the pro-Israel lobbies, give money, send many of their children to Israel and educate future generations of Jews with the understanding that Israel is central to Judaism. They are our partners.
    A tip of the hat (my Kippah remains in place) to those who patiently and respectfully listened to MK Rotem but did not allow the wool to be pulled over their eyes.

  10. I don’t understand the Reform/Conservative problem with this bill. The whole point is to loosen and streamline the conversion process to allow 340,000 FSU’s to become Jews. The Rotem bill is something that Reform/Conservatives say they support. So, what’s the problem?

  11. To Anonymouse:
    The Rotem bill purports to create conditions that would increase the number of conversion in Israel.
    It does so by allowing local municipal Orthodox rabbis to establish Batei Din.
    But these Batei Din must have the approval of the Chief Rabbi. The Cheif Rabbi will not approve more open, liberal, Batei Din. If he would, we would not have a problem in the first place.
    And article one of the bill gives conversion authority to the Chief Rabbinate. As of now the current law does not give them that authority -so today the Interior Ministry reorganizes non-Orthodox conversion. The non-Orthodox are registered as Jews.
    This law may change this.
    And most of those 340,000 have long since been turned off by the Orthodox establishment and the humiliating treatment is dished out to many of those who tried entering its doors.
    Want more people to convert? Open up more Batei Din, in all steams (also Orthodox) who are not encumbered by an out of touch rabbinate.

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