Two Peoples or One?

Larry Levin, Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light


The provocative article written by Peter Beinert in the New York Review of Books this spring, and the piercing debate about it that followed, point to the prospect of tough slogging ahead between Israel and the Diaspora. The conversion bill now before the Israeli Knesset may turn that pointer into a dagger.

Ironically viewed by some as “anti-Zionist,” Beinert’s article primarily laments the threat posed by the lack of connection the next generation of Jewish adults in our country feels to Israel. Beinert makes many relevant points, one being that the liberality many young American Jews exhibit toward domestic social issues is antithetical to the perceived insistence that to be a good American Jew means to support the party line.


Some, from Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, have gone head-to-head with Beinert on his lengthy piece. Foxman chose to focus his retort not so much on the drifting of young Americans from Israel but on Beinert’s apparent bias against the current right-leaning government. In doing so, Foxman managed to look more outward, at the conduct of Israel’s enemies, rather than inward, at how we as an international Jewish community pose the question of what comprises support for the Jewish State. Either way you interpret Beinert – as a left-leaning antagonist or a pleader for multiple pathways to connect politically to Israel – he emphasizes the perceived message that if you don’t support the government in power, you don’t support Israel.

This, as we know, is preposterous. The opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. For many of us who are forever hurling about myriad ideas and suggestions regarding Israel, we do so with passion, not with animus, for we desire Israel to be the highest and best it can be. We may have differing visions, but those differences are less relevant than our shared concern for and commitment to the Jewish State.

(As an aside: We do wish Beinert would have been more forthcoming about the many great programs that have been implemented by so many organizations to strengthen the Diaspora-Israel bond. Birthright Israel – and locally the Rubin Israel Experience for those older than the Birthright parameters – Partnership 2000, Focus Israel. The list goes on and on, and many of them steer clear of politics altogether, preferring instead to focus on the entirety of Israeli life and culture.)

Beinert’s admonitions loom large this week, as a selfish and poorly drawn initiative from the Israeli far right threatens to blow peoplehood efforts out of the water, and to reinforce the fears that Beinert expresses.

We’ve written before of the proposed conversion bill that has been shepherded through Knesset committee by MK David Rotem. The bill, which now has passed out of committee and could head for a first reading vote soon (see related story on page 8), is a shot to the bow of the Diaspora.

By consolidating authority for conversions under the stringently religious Chief Rabbinate, the bill creates a spectre that the Right of Return and future conversions outside of Israel could be in serious jeopardy.

Rotem contends that the bill itself eases conversions in Israel by giving more authority to municipal rabbis, and does not do anything to preclude conversions overseas under Reform, Conservative or other jurisdiction. He claims it is a provincial, locally drawn effort to cure ills within Israel and thus the Diaspora shouldn’t even be concerned.

But Rotem and those who support the bill seriously miss the point, either by design or by negligence. This is not about precise words on a piece of paper. This is about a country that exists in tandem with the world Jewish population, and by raising the prospect that down the road, the Chief Rabbinate could rewrite the rules of the game, sends exactly the wrong message to the 6 million person Diaspora, 85 percent of which is non-Orthodox.

Rotem is charged with a double-cross in bringing the bill out of committee to the floor, whereas he said he made no promises in that regard. That is the weakest of truths, if one at all. The Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky, charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with negotiating an effective solution, was fully expecting a sitdown with Rotem before anything went to the plenum.

It appears that the coalition that runs the Israeli government gets it, at least right now, as Netanyahu has said that absent meaningful amendment, he intends to instruct his Likud party and the others in the leadership bloc to oppose the legislation. And kudos to the numbers of worldwide Jewish organizations and denominations which have blasted Rotem’s efforts.

At a time when, as Beinert suggests, the Israel-Diaspora future bond seems fragile, when young Jewish adults are trying to find meaning in their peoplehood, the aims of Rotem’s bill seem almost mean-spirited. He and his partners need not only to withdraw the bill in its current state, but to apologize profusely to the Diaspora for the utter lack of respect. For to say this bill doesn’t affect us, is to say that our notion of Jewish peoplehood need not include Israel as a major and inviolate part. And that is a message we think is exactly the wrong one to send at this point in Jewish history.