Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Morris Allen published a guest post yesterday, concerning a new conversion bill currently making its way through the Knesset (the Israeli parliament).
This bill has been playing out in some very interesting ways in the Knesset for a while now, and I wanted to provide some more details and context around it, for anyone who’s a political junkie for that sort of thing (anyone who’s not a political junkie may want to run screaming now…. don’t say you weren’t warned!)
So first a short primer on the Israeli political system:
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, more or less on the same model as, say, Italy (and we all know how disfunctional Italy is, with over 50 governments since World War II…)
Basically, there is a 120-person parliament, with all the members coming from party lists. The leader of the largest party gets to lead the country as Prime Minister, and form a government.
However, unlike our own Congress, Israel has not two parties, but a whole smorgasbord of parties – every couple of shmoes who are unhappy with the government can come together and form their own party (and in a country full of Jews, that was never going to cause any problems, right?)
So there is an environmentalists’ party, a pot-smokers’ party, a retirees’ party, an Ashkenazi-orthodox party, a Sephardic-orthodox party, several nationalist-orthodox parties, an anti-religious party, and so on, and so on, and so on… (Anyone interested in forming a Minnesota-expats-enjoying-the-beach party for the next elections? Just asking…)
So, in order to become Prime Minister and actually get to govern (or what passes for governing in Israel), the leader of the largest party must have more than half of the votes of the Knesset in his support. This never happens. The largest party absolutely never gets enough votes that it can simply rule on its own.
So it has to form a coalition. And that’s where the fun really begins.
Every major party trying to form an actual government has to cobble together a coalition of other, smaller parties to support it, in order to get to and maintain 60 votes. If the government does not have 60 votes in the Knesset at any time, the government falls, and a new government has to be established. So a coalition with smaller parties must be maintained at all times, and at all costs.
And this is where we get into the small parties that really run the place.
At the moment, there are several smaller parties that are the key to holding the coalition together. I’m going to focus on 3 of them:
- One is Israel Beyteinu (Israel is our Home): a highly nationalist party, with a large support base among the very nationalistic and largely non-religious Russian-Israelis.
- The second is Shas: an ultra-religious party of the Sephardic ultra-orthodox.
- The third is United Torah Judaism (UTJ): an even more ultra-religious party of the Ashkenazic ultra-orthodox.
So to recap: we have a highly-nationalist, non- (and sometimes anti-) religious party, with a heavy Russian-Israeli support base, and two extremely religious parties, both of which think the other’s rabbis are full of it, and both of which mostly couldn’t care less about the details of the national security situation (at least from the political point of view). And these three parties must all agree to sit in the coalition together, or else the government will fall. Are you with me so far?
In addition, since Israel Beyteinu (by far the largest of the three) has a large Russian-Israeli support base, it naturally cares a great deal about the concerns of this target group. And it just so happens that the Russian-Israeli population has two very specific and major problems. These problems stem from the fact that at the moment, a significant percentage of Russian-Israelis are “not Jewish according to Halacha” (for instance, if your maternal grandmother was not Jewish, you don’t qualify, even if the rest of your family was Jewish). So what that means is that there is a large number of people who are full citizens of Israel, have grown up in Israel, fight in Israel’s army, and overwhelmingly consider themselves to be Jewish (and were certainly (mis)treated as Jews back in the Soviet Union), but who, for reasons of which parent(s) or grandparent(s) is or is not Jewish, are not considered “Jewish enough” for the Israeli Rabbinate.
The main issue has been around marriage. Since this subset of Russian-Israelis are not anything other than Jewish (so they don’t care to have a Christian or Muslim marriage), if say, one Russian-Israeli whose father was Jewish wants to marry another Russian-Israeli whose mother was Jewish, they are not able to do so. At all. (Technically, they can skirt the issue and go to Cyprus, but that’s a little unreasonable to expect). There have been other issues, like burial (including some major cases concerning the refusal of Jewish burial for Israeli soldiers killed in the line of duty). But marriage has been the big one.
The other issue concerns conversion. Since the Russian-Israelis who are not “officially Jewish” realize that these problems will simply continue into the next generation, and since most of them consider themselves Jewish anyway (the overwhelming majority celebrate all the Jewish holidays and raise their children Jewish, just like any other Israelis), many are open to simply doing an official conversion and getting this issue over with in this generation. However, since (let’s be honest here), they aren’t really all going to become Orthodox overnight (though the Reform and Conservative movements have been making some (limited) inroads in these communities), they have been faced with some issues going through the official Rabbinical courts for conversion (not to mention that quite a few of them, especially the women, rather chafe at some of the “education” they get from those Orthodox courts, as well).
So these people are sitting in a coalition with ultra-orthodox religious parties. And to be honest, they really don’t care about inter-denominational co-existance, theological consistency, or any of that stuff. They just want things to be easier for their people.
And that brings us to this conversion bill itself.
This is not too apparent from Rabbi Allen’s column, but this bill was actually not brought by any of the religious parties to cement their hold on conversions. It was actually brought by Israel Beyteinu, in order to make conversions easier. But in order to pass this bill, it has to have the support of the entire coalition, so both Israel Beyteinu and the two religious parties have to support the final bill, or it has no hope of passing (it actually has no hope of passing in any case, but more on that later).
So the original, and main, element of the bill was the second one – allowing local, municipal rabbis to set up conversion courts. There are far more details here, but the goal was to clear up some of the backlog that has been built up by forcing all conversions to go through a single set of “conversion courts.” Allowing a lot more rabbis to set up local conversion courts, the thinking went, would help speed a larger number of conversions.
A related section dealt with the common issue of some rabbis deciding your conversion was not good enough, or your rabbi not stringent enough (not reform, mind you, just “not my kind of orthodox” or whatever), and suddenly reversing the conversions, or refusing to perform marriages. This bill aims to create a situation where the courts that are allowed to convert you are also the only ones that can reverse that conversion (and not make it a free-for-all).
But here the coalition comes into play.
The Israel Beyteinu party just wants this stuff – they really don’t care about anything else. But they need to mollify the two religious parties, in order to secure their votes in favor of the bill.
So at some point during the negotiations, the other elements somehow made their way in, as well. Somehow (and nobody seems quite sure how), the bill now also formalizes the arrangement that the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate is officially in charge of all conversions (which up to now has been the de facto, but not formalized, arrangement). The bill has also somehow added the bizarre section that seems to say that if you entered Israel as a non-Jew at any point, any later conversion will not make you Jewish enough for the Law of Return, ever.
Finally, why this bill is NEVER going to pass.
Both of these sections are there, presumably, to make the religious parties comfortable enough to allow the main piece that Israel Beyteinu cares about – supposedly easier conversions in Israel for those Russian-Israelis who are “non-Halachically-Jewish.” Israel Beyteinu really doesn’t care about any theoretical impact to other communities abroad, etc. (We aren’t voting for them, or even bothering to move to Israel, unlike these supposed “non-Jews,” are we? So why should they care?) But these new, placate-the-religious-parties sections have really ticked off Conservative and Reform communities in the U.S. (understandably).
The thing is that, as the bill stands at this point, with all these new sections, it has managed to tick off so many people, from so many completely different factions, that it doesn’t have a hope of passing. It tries to do two or three completely different things, and each thing is upsetting its own distinct set of political players. So some people are upset with the original intent of easier local conversions that are harder to reverse (see: the religious parties). Other people are upset with the impact this might have on conversions, immigration, or more “liberal” strains of Judaism. Satisfying all of these parties is not very likely right now, so as it stands, this bill does not have a prayer of passing the Knesset – too many people are against it for too many reasons.
In fact, you can see this effect from the official status of this bill at the moment. The bill is only in the Knesset Law Committee (not on the Knesset floor), and the two religious parties have already been squabbling about it non-stop, accusing each other of all sorts of nonsense (like contradicting Jewish law, and so on, and so forth – “my Rabbi is bigger than your Rabbi”), and threatening to walk out every other minute.
At this point, discussions have come to such a dead end, that the Law Committee has arrived at a “tentative postponement agreement,” agreeing that the Committee would “discuss the conversion bill but will not vote on it.” The bill’s very author, MK David Rotem, keeps loudly stressing that “a vote will not take place at the end of the discussion.”
So the Committee in the Knesset is still not even ready to agree to vote on presenting this bill to the Knesset itself, and are busy re-enacting their kindergarden years. Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath for this thing ever becoming law.
Wow! That was a thorough explanation. If you still have questions perhaps you should attend this meeting and ask another knowledgeable source.
with Orli Gil
Consul General of Israel to the Midwest
Friday, March 12, 2010
7:30 – 9:00 a.m.
(including complimentary breakfast)
United Jewish Fund and Council
790 S. Cleveland Ave. #227 St. Paul, MN 55116
(Cleveland Avenue and Ford Parkway above Chatterbox Pub)
RSVP today – Limited Seating
651-695-3181 / [email protected]
Take advantage of this great opportunity to learn about and ask questions regarding the latest developments in Israel: The peace process, the Iranian nuclear threat, U.S. – Israel relations, etc.
Consul General Gil arrived in Chicago to assume her post at the Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest in late July, 2008. She is a career diplomat who has served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for twenty two years. Her previous posts and positions have included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem: Division of International Organizations as Director of UN Specialized Organizations (UNESCO, World Health Organization, etc.) as well as other NGOs, Consul for Academic Affairs for the United States at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, where she was in charge of all activities relating to Israel on college campuses throughout the country, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem: serving consecutively in the Public Affairs Department; the Bureau of the Director General of the Ministry and in the Palestinian Affairs Division, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Israel, Oslo Norway, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem serving in the North American Division and the Public Affairs Division. Ms. Gil was born in Rishon L’tsion, Israel. She served in the Israeli Air Force and attended Hebrew University, obtaining a degree in English and Hebrew literature. Consul General Gil is married with three children.
I second the Consul General’s “WOW!” (not to be confused with ‘Women of the Wall’).
Jenna – Amazing rundown of some really complicated issues — all in a fun way. hey, that’s no easy feat.
(one small bit of trivia: The leader of the largest party does not always “get to lead” — Kadima has 28 seats; Likud only 27; but Tzipi Livni was unable to form a gov’t).
ps. If you loved Jenna’s article and you just ‘can’t get enough’ of these issues, check out http://religionandstateinisrael.blogspot.com/ & http://twitter.com/religion_state
That was a really informative and helpful article! Thanks!
jenna, way to make a non-political junky understand so much! thanks for a well written piece that shed a lot of light *and* managed to be a fun read!
Consul Gil, Joel, Sara, Galit – Thank you!
I had no idea the Israeli Consulate reads online magazines! I’ll have to be more careful with what I write in future! 🙂
And Joel – yes, I know about the Tzipi Livni wrinkle, but I thought this was complicated enough without throwing in that little detail. 🙂 Thanks for bringing it up though, for accuracy’s sake!
Nice one Jenna. 🙂
Really good summary. As a Blue Star Mother(mother with child in the military& the wife of a Navy Veteran(married 27yrs),who happens to have converted, it deeply offends me that the Israeli Soldiers, who died are being deemed “not Jewish enough” to be buried in a Jewish cemetery with a Jewish burial in Israel. What their sacrifice isn’t enough!
Please do not throw the baby out with the bath water.
I am one of the “Russians” that Ms. Mitelman wrote about in her very commendable article. That is, I am a Jew by ethnicity and religion, who immigrated from the Former Soviet Union, and whose family made a choice to move to the United States.
I have extended family in Israel. Several members of my family ran into the marriage quagmire created by the nightmarish Jewish Orthodox establishment in Israel. As it happened, the issue was not as much of Jewishness, but of proof of Jewishness. And, as it happened in the case of my family (but also in cases of many other “Russians”), peyous-adorned glorified idiots who preside over shuls and yeshivas in Bnei Brak required “evidence” (metrics, birth records, etc.) that could not be obtained — we come from the part of FSU that was under nazi occupation for extended time, a number of my ancestors perished in ghettos, and most of the records were destroyed. While some of my relatives were successful in arguing their case, one young couple gave up and had an “off-shore” wedding.
Now, coming back to Yisrael Beiteinu. The party does indeed has heavy roots in Russian expatriate community. And, as such, it attempts to represent the interests of its constituents. And these interests happen to be marriage and decent burial. I view their attempt at passing this particular bill as an honest attempt at help the people who support this party, and to reduce on-going Orthodox blackmail of the rest of the country. As Ms. Mednick has pointed out above, that blackmail becomes even more repugnant when it concerns soldiers who died in defense of Israel.
The root of the problem, of course, is the lack of clear separation of church and state that exists in Israel. Without that separation, Israel will continue to have problems, not only with “Russians”, but with “Indians”, “Ethiopians”, and many other minorities who are not viewed as Jews by the All-Israel Central Committee on Jewish Everything, that happens to be governed by Ashkenazim and Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox.
So the the new and unfortunately named Conversion Bill is an attempt by Yisrael Beiteinu to decentralize that control, thus relaxing the racket of the Central Rabbinate on conversions and may other aspects of jewish
life in Israel. Since it is impossible, in the current political climate, to guarantee clear separation of church and state, it would at least be possible to achieve some degree of independance from Central Commitee, speed up the process for those who want to undergo it, and resolve a very painful situation for many who are affected by it.
The bill does have major drawbacks, and the means of passing it involves getting in bed with the “doxies”, as Ms. Mitelman correctly points out. But it is meant to resolve an internal Israeli situation, a situation that already affects several thousand people, and who are,
yes, as Ms. Mitelman again correctly identifies, are “Russians” and other immigrants. It is not outright directed at those living outside of Israel, but, due to unfortunate political associations, it picked up some dirt to accommodate people already in dire straits with respect to such fundamental rights as marriage and decent burial.
As to Rabbi Allen’s post, after reading it, I could not notice how self-serving it was. Rabbi Allen’s concern is the maintenance of the status quo with regard to conversions, which will guarantee the current semi-
acceptance of conversions conducted in US. It speaks nothing of the many people already stuck in religious limbo in Israel. Perhaps, instead of writing notes of protest, Rabbi Allen could try to engage Yisrael Beiteinu and its leadership on the matter of conversions, rather than trying to stay in the way of the party attempting to help their own constituents. His post reminded me of a statement professed to me by
one American born-and-bred rabbi: “American Rabbis do not actually help people, they just mediate conflicts”.
Dmitry – Thanks for your comment. One thing you failed to notice about Rabbi Allen’s piece however, was that most of that article and it’s advice was actually written by the national Rabbinical Association to congregants and rabbis nationwide. You would have to ask Rabbi Allen if he agrees with the entire post or not, but your criticism is better lobbed at that national organization that one individual rabbi.
I also think that your statement that “American Rabbis do not actually help people” is ridiculous and wrong. Would you say the same thing about pediatricians, teachers, lawyers and psychiatrists? As long as you’re going to overgeneralize based on your individual (or the rabbi you referred to’s) experience, you might as well take it to the extreme. I know thousands of people whose lives have been shaped by amazing, insightful, compassionate rabbis. In fact, I definitely feel that I’ve been helped by numerous rabbis throughout my life. And do you really think that one Conservative rabbi in Minnesota can and should be “engaging Yisrael Beiteinu”? How? A letter of protest aimed at inciting a community to take action in a grassroots fashion seems like a perfect way to get involved (although I recognize Jenna’s statement that this is not likely a bill that will succeed anyway).
I’d like to counter you on both points that you have stated. I did not fail to notice that the article was written by someone else, some Central Committee or, as you say, national Rabbinical Association. I also did not fail to notice that Rabbi Allen chose to forward and post the article, of his own free will, most likely because he endorses it and agrees with his contents. I do not think that a RabbiCop from the Rabbinical Association would have suspended Rabbi Allen’s Davening license for 40 days had he refused to disseminate this particular letter. As to where to better lob my criticism, well, I think that it should be lobbed in both directions.
I’d like to talk about the second point, but my reply will take us way off the topic of Jenna’s article, for which I apologize to Jenna and everyone else. As I am not sure how to start a new topic, I will leave it up to the board administrator to either sensor me or redirect the post to the appropriate thread.
To begin with, you have somewhat, well, misquoted me? The statement about American Rabbis was not my statement, nor was it an attempt at generalization. That would be rather stupid of me, as both myself and my family owe much to American Jewish Community in general and Rabbis in particular, both American and non-American born.
What I did was to quote unfortunate words professed to me by one unfortunate individual, who happened to be a rabbi (an American Rabbi, in his own words), who was a head of the congregation that we attended at the time, and to whom I and my wife had a misfortune to turn to for help during a very difficult and tragic time for our family. Needless to say, those words were the reason why we left that congregation shortly thereafter. Believe me, Liora, a simple “no” is much easier to handle than the pretentious words that we heard that day. But, I digress…
Anyway, I did liken Rabbi Allen’s post to the words that were professed to me and my wife, and for a reason.
I have followed Rabbi Allen’s involvement in and writings about the Agriprocessor affair. Rabbi Allen carried from it his humane kashrut doctrine, which is very commendable going forward. Judaism is about freedom, and no aspect of our religion is compatible with slave labor.
But what about the people? I am talking about those unfortunate souls who were seized by INS officials, about the broken families, fatherless and motherless children, deportations? I am not trying to condone what Rubashkins did, they did not treat their workers well at all. But yet, they provided substinence not just to the whole families who lived next to the plant, but also to their extended families back in Central America. All of that was gone the minute INS raided the plant.
But wait, who was helping the workers? Was there a legal fund set up to help mitigate the brutality of INS? Who was rallying the community for support and funds? Were there defense teams put together from brilliant Jewish pro-bono lawyers to help re-unify the families of workers, and give them a chance to settle, at least temporarily, in this land of milk and honey? Was any one of the men seized that day released on his own recognizance and reunified with his family, while his case was being heard? No, but there was much talked-about community indignation and humane kashrut.
Some of the most recent stories from postville can be found here http://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=2490362 and here http://www.womensradio.com/articles/Deportation-of-Mothers-in-Iowa-Tests-Local-Charity/4517.html. There is no mention of Jewish charities helping those poor illegal immigrants.
And yes, I do believe that it is possible for one individual to engage an organization, and produce tangible results.
For those who are still interested (or care) to follow this discussion and the Agriprocessor affair, PBS Frontline has recently aired a documentary on the fate of some of the people who were gravely affected by the raid:
Please make your own conclusions.
The (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America has an excellent statement regarding this conversation. Res ipsa loquitur