Israel’s conversion bill finds local critics


Proposed changes to conversion laws in Israel’s Knesset is drawing sharp criticism from many quarters, including two major American Jewish organizations, for a controversial clause that may alter Israel’s long-held Law of Return.

Among other things, the legislation, which would change the rules governing which rabbinic authorities perform and recognize conversions, has been the target of strongly worded sentiments from both the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The controversy stems from a clause that would prevent those who entered Israel as a non-Jew from obtaining automatic citizenship under the Law of Return if they convert. Instead, such converts would be subject to other naturalization procedures. The wording did not appear to affect overseas conversions.


Presently, the Law of Return grants Jews worldwide the right to settle in Israel as citizens of the Jewish State.

In a statement released last week, JFNA called potential changes to the law “an affront to world Jewry” and urged Israeli officials to engage Jews in dialogue before alterations are made.

“We implore the Israeli government to seriously consider the concerns and sensitivities of Diaspora Jews before acting on such proposals,” said the JFNA statement. “Changes to the Law of Return could adversely affect many members of our community by preventing them from making aliyah and becoming Israeli citizens.”

Leadership at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, one of 157 federations represented by JFNA, echoed the organization’s sentiments last week. Questioned via email during his a trip to Israel, Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the local federation said that his agency fully supports JFNA’s position and that of the Jewish Agency for Israel, whose chairman Natan Sharansky also expressed concern over the proposal.

“The Federation has long opposed any changes to the Law of Return or other legal provisions that might serve to disenfranchise converts to Judaism,” Rosenberg’s email said. “We further believe it is imperative for the government of Israel to observe long-standing agreements that it will consult with us in matters affecting personal Jewish status.”

AJC’s national president Richard Sideman and executive director David Harris termed the measure a “precedent for discrimination against distinct categories of Jews” in a letter sent to the bill’s sponsor earlier this month.

Interviewed locally, Nancy Lisker, director of the St. Louis office of the organization, emailed a statement calling the Law of Return “probably the most Zionist of any Israeli law.”

“Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people, and the Law of Return is, both ideologically and practically, a significant manifestation of Israel’s relationship to Diaspora Jewry,” she said. “Over the years, when other attempts to amend this law have surfaced, AJC has urged that appropriate consultations be held with Diaspora Jewish leaders and organizations.”

Reaction was evident at the local level among rabbis as well. Carnie Shalom Rose, senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Amoona, sent out materials to his congregation urging that they write Israeli leadership in opposition to the move.

“This is a terrible situation,” Rose told the Light in an interview last week. “It creates problems within the State of Israel. It creates problems amongst Jews in general and it creates an ongoing attempt on the part of one group of Jews to have hegemony over the rest of the Jews of the world.”

“That does nothing to help the Jewish people,” he added. “We need a multiplicity of possibilities and a plethora of portals, not those so limited, controlled and narrowly defined that people can’t find their way in.”

Rose worried that efforts like that represented by the proposed law would further distance Diaspora Jewry from its historic ties to Israel, something he feared would hurt both the Diaspora and the Jewish State. He said it was an issue that affected all streams of Judaism. Though the bill’s wording suggests it would not affect those who had converted without coming to Israel, Rose believes it creates a slippery slope that may lead to the delegitimization of conversions performed elsewhere.

“It’s a very uncomfortable scenario for many. It creates fissures and ongoing challenges for the Jewish community in ways that we really don’t need,” he said. “We need to find ways to be together, not to divide ourselves from one another.”

The rabbi said that while Israelis should have jurisdiction over their own affairs, in issues of consequence to the entire Jewish community it is best to get input from a wider perspective. He encouraged those who felt strongly to “make our voices heard.”

“Some will say that Jews who live in the Diaspora should have no control and no say in what happens in the State of Israel,” he said. “I think that that’s foolish and wrong. We have to have a stake all over the world because Israel is the homeland to all of us.”

Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion said he had serious concerns with the idea that the legislation may create an unwieldy multi-level civic structure.

“It is a very unhealthy and even dangerous situation that there are varying standards of citizenship within the same country,” he said. “We, as Americans, can appreciate how chaotic it would be if there were different standards for acceptance of citizenship between people who became citizens here and people who applied overseas.”

Smason said that the best course of action was a policy of inclusivity. He said that just as in the St. Louis community it was important to serve kosher food at Judaic events so that all members of the community could enjoy the meal, it was important also for Jews in Israel and worldwide to be welcoming to all segments of the religion.

“It’s not simply from a theological perspective or an ideological perspective but simply from a practical perspective,” he said. “Now more than ever the Jewish people need unity. Something that promotes Jewish unity is something we should all gather behind. Something that threatens to divide the Jewish people, such as differing standards, can create a disastrous situation.”

“Why should we as a people strive for anything less than being inclusive of all Jews?” he asked.

Gerry Greiman, president of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, said that his organization hadn’t taken an official position on the controversy but he had his own feelings regarding the issue.

“Personally, I’m disturbed by the proposal before the Knesset,” he said. “I think that the Jewish community reflects great diversity and anything that weakens the unity of the Jewish people as a whole is of great concern.”