Identity, Israel, Politics, Religion

“Oops, I betrayed you again”: Lieberman, FSU olim & the Rotem conversion bill

This is a guest post by Nikki Ralston, Director of Online Communications at Hiddush, a non-profit working to advance religious freedom and equality in Israel.
The mysterious inner workings of Israeli politics can produce some strange bedfellows, or should I say ‘coalition partners’, but the latest push to completely hand over the reins of Judaism and Jewish unity to the haredi establishment might at least make sense if it was coming from a haredi political party like United Torah Judaism or Shas. But why is MK Rotem of Israel Beiteinu trying so vehemently to shove his conversion bill down the throats of Israeli law makers? For those of you scratching your heads asking “Isn’t that the Russian olim party headed by Avigdor Lieberman? Since when do Russian immigrants support religious coercion?”, you’re absolutely right, but Lieberman isn’t the kind of guy who lets his constituents get in the way of his politics.
The majority of Israel Beiteinu voters are Russian-speaking Israelis, a demographic characterized by a strong liberal secular social agenda. Recent Religion and State Index surveys show strong support for religious freedom:
Source: Israel Religion and State Index, Spring 2010
88% of Israel Beitenu voters support ending the Orthodox monopoly on marriage
92% of Israel Beiteinu voters oppose new religious legislation
79% of Immigrants support religious equality for all denominations of Judaism
76% of immigrants oppose ALL religiously coercive legislation
So why is Israel Beiteinu pushing a Conversion Bill that would grant complete monopoly control over conversions to Judaism in Israel to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate?
It may be that given the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners Israel Beiteinu has to work with, the party is just being pragmatic. Realizing that there is little chance of garnering support for the religious pluralism and separation of religion and state that its voters seek, the party has settled to concentrate on its international/security agenda and leave social issues for later. This is a broken record in Israel. How often have we heard the security situation used as a catch-all excuse for why Israel can’t tackle its pressing internal social issues?
Or maybe the conversion bill is an example of how the need to compromise can mangle what may have started out as a very good bill, meant to truly open up and ease the conversion process and prevent the horrific occurrence of retroactive annulments. I’ll give Rotem and Israel Beiteinu the benefit of the doubt and assume that their original intentions were good. In fact, Rotem’s original 2007 Conversion bill (Hebrew) was indeed a genuine attempt to address the needs of his constituents and find a real solution to help ensure successful integration into Jewish Israeli society. But when Rotem was unable to advance the original 2007 bill due to opposition by haredi parties, he realized the only way was compromise. This compromise spun out of control and eventually turned the bill into a Trojan horse – an anti-conversion bill dressed up as a pro-conversion bill.
According to analysis by Uri Regev, rabbi and jurist, a leading expert and activist for religious freedom, the proposed conversion bill “is the worst and most damaging in the sequence of conversion bills that MK Rotem, who chairs the (Knesset Constitution & Law) Committee, has proposed. It represents an unsavory surrender to the rabbinical establishment and the ultra-Orthodox politicians. The proposal is designed to expand the authority of the Chief Rabbinate and undermine conversions done by the major religious movements within the Jewish people. It pretentiously claims to facilitate easier access to conversion for new immigrants and halt the increasing trend to nullify conversions after the fact, on the grounds of non-observance of commandments. This proposal does not solve the problems faced by new immigrants, and it puts at risk Israel’s strategic interests, by jeopardizing the cooperation and solidarity with Diaspora Jewry. It places Israel on an inevitable collision course with most Jews of the world today – and represents an unfortunate example for highly objectionable legislation. It may have started with good intentions, but after passing through the ultra-religious political mill it has become an appalling bill which must be rejected outright.”
What is clear is that Israel Beiteinu voters, along with the majority of constituents of all the major secular political parties in Israel, oppose religiously coercive legislation and support the recognition of non-Orthodox conversion. This may not help understand how Lieberman’s party became an agent of religious coercion, but it certainly explains why world Jewry is opposing the latest conversion bill so passionately and it looks like PM Netanyahu is getting the message. He announced within 24 hours of the bill passing the Law & Constitution Committee that he would not allow the bill to reach the Knesset plenum. Let’s keep the pressure on by making sure he hears directly from each and every one of us.

12 thoughts on ““Oops, I betrayed you again”: Lieberman, FSU olim & the Rotem conversion bill

  1. Such official measures in Israel to de-legitimize non-orthodox factions seem ironic, patently unfair, and unconscionable.
    The amazing (but perhaps not surprising) part is that a mere 48 hours before this bill went on the docket, Netanyahu had met with American Jewish leaders, promising them it would go no further.
    For more ideas and ways to make your voice heard on this issue, here are some other good sites:
    Please consider taking action.

  2. Ben Gurion made a deal with the Orthodox a long time ago. Nobody made a fuss then. Live with it now.

  3. Dave wrote: “Ben Gurion made a deal with the Orthodox a long time ago. Nobody made a fuss then. Live with it now”
    Times and circumstances change. Are you suggesting that any, and all, deals are forever?
    And just for the record-the Israeli courts have found no such “deal” with regard to conversion with a basis in law. That is why there is now an effort to pass legislation.

  4. @Itamar: The Rabbinate has failed in the areas of marriage, conversion, burial, Agunot, Kashrut, and human rights. Now along comes a bill that will give then (exclusive?) authority over conversion in Israel (this has not been enshrined in law to date) and deny the Masorti and Reform.
    By and large those from the FSU, owing to the degrading process, are no longer interested in conversion. So this bill will not bring in significant numbers at all. That train has left the station. It will only give increased power to an already corrupt rabbinate.
    As for the provision to allow local rabbis (who may be more liberal and enlightened) to perform conversions – this too is an illusion. For they too will only be allowed to convert with the OK of the Chief Rabbi.
    If Rotem really wanted to open the doors he would allow most Zionist Orthodox rabbis, as well as non-Orthodox rabbis, to convert. Then, those who follow in the path of Beit Hillel would be involved. A look at Jewish law (see the excellent book by Zvi Zohar of the Hartman Institute) will reveal just how many authorities permit, and even demand, an open path to conversion for those who have adopted Jewish history as their own, and who have tied their fate to the Jewish people by serving in the army or serving the country of Israel.
    This was the appraoch of Rav Uziel, Israel’s first Sefardi Chief Rabbi and even of Rav Gorin in the seventies.
    Those from the FSU don’t want to deal with THE rabbinate. They live just fine today as Jews – without actually being Halachicly Jewish.
    Does any clear thinker believe that the Haredi parties would be supporting this bill if it eased conversion?

    1. If Rotem really wanted to open the doors he would allow most Zionist Orthodox rabbis, as well as non-Orthodox rabbis, to convert.
      Or simply remove conversion as a governmental function, like every other country on the planet, and then anyone can perform conversions.

  5. The Chief Rabbinate has always overseen conversions performed inside Israel, so this was nothing new. Conservative and Reform converts from America would still be covered by the Law of Return. The main innovation was that City Rabbis like Steven Riskin could perform conversions in Israel and these conversions could not be revoked. The Chief Rabbinate is NOT Haredi and it was indeed the Chief Rabbis’ conversions that Dayan Sherman tried to revoke. The controversy was created by American Jewish machers, who presumably misunderstood the details of Rotem’s bill. Perhaps they should brush up on their Ivrit.

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