Conversion: The American Machers Protest!

Gershom Gorenberg

If there’s one subject that forces U.S. Jewish leaders to express their views on Israeli politics, it’s “Who’s a Jew.” In previous years, the crises began when it looked like the Knesset would change the Law of Return so that non-Orthodox converts would not qualify to immigrate as Jews. That threatened the legitimacy of Reform and Conservative Judaism. The Israeli government couldn’t ask for U.S. Jewish support based on eternal family ties while telling part of the family that, oops, we don’t recognize you as family.

Those were the good old days. Now the rabbinic courts have shown themselves willing to disqualify most Orthodox conversions, performed in Israel or abroad. Conversions performed by the head of the government’s own Conversion Authority, Rabbi Haim Druckman, have been annulled ex post facto, and Druckman has been told to go home. (Read the background in my article in Moment magazine.) Now the leaders of the organized Jewish community are demanding the Prime Minister Olmert fix the broken Orthodox conversion system. But I don’t think they’ve yet recognized the depth of the crisis.

A letter from the heads of the United Jewish Communities to Olmert, dated July 9, says:

…we are writing to you to express our deep concern regarding the untenable instability that has characterized the conversion system in Israel over the past few months and ask for your personal involvement.

For almost three decades, the Jewish community of the Diaspora fought for the redemption of Soviet Jewry. Now that many have arrived in Israel, we must provide them with full acceptance and fulfill the notion of “am yisrael. ”

While we are aware that you have made efforts to resolve the crisis by appointing your cabinet secretary to oversee conversion, and we understand the complexities of these challenges, we hope that greater and deeper involvement by you personally will make a marked and real difference in the view of immigrants seeking conversion and in guaranteeing the future of conversion in Israel. Few crises have so divided Israel from the North American Jewish community.

The letter is signed by the chair of the UJC board, Joseph Kanfer, and by the organization’s CEO, Howard Rieger. In brief translation, it means: If the state undoes conversion, it undoes the tie with the Diaspora, so you better fix things. Fixing them, it seems, means getting the Conversion Authority working again.

One little problem is that Mr. Olmert is a little busy these days with police investigators, defense attorneys, a political party that would like him to please go home, and coalition partners who find that clothes pins on their noses won’t keep out the stench. Complaints from Diaspora Jews aren’t his first priority.

But even if Olmert were interested and willing to get involved, he’d have to do more than find a new rabbi to do conversions. That wouldn’t solve the problem of rabbinic courts dominated by ultra-Orthodox judges who no longer accept the basic principle that conversion is permanent, and certainly don’t think it’s possible for someone who doesn’t plan to adopt their lifestyle.

Even for those who think that state-established religion is somehow workable, you can’t have state-supervised conversion when the state officials involved don’t believe in conversion. The system is broken beyond repair. The U.S. machers are talking about Jewish peoplehood; the rabbinic courts supported by the state don’t recognize the concept any more. There is no reason for the state to support a Judaism that deligitimizes most Jews. A letter to the prime minister is no fix. For the ongoing connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry to survive, religion has to be disestablished. Of course, there are other good reasons for that step.

The UJC letter avoids other key issues. On the one hand, immigrants from the former Soviet Union who aren’t Jewish under religious law aren’t all pushing to convert. Israel has not yet faced up to the problem of their integration without conversion. We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.

On the other hand, Israel is still encouraging “aliyah” from the former Soviet republics, when the people coming are less and less likely to have any identification with Jews or Israel. The aliyah machine continues to work without any thought behind its purpose, as if Israel were still “redeeming” the Soviet aliyah activists of the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, children of foreign workers who know no language but Hebrew and no country but Israel live as undocumented non-people in Israeli cities.

The letter from the UJC signifies recognition that something is wrong, but not understanding of how fundamental the crisis is, how basic the issues that need to be debated. Olmert’s response should be, “Listen, I’m out of here, but you need to have a serious conversation with whoever moves in here after me.”

3 thoughts on “Conversion: The American Machers Protest!

  1. “We need to define a civic Israeli identity not dependent on halakhic status.” – I couldn’t agree more. But do you think, Gershom, that this is actually possible? That is are there any political groups that have this issue in their agenda? And if there are, are they strong enough?

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