For decades, haredi-Orthodox authorities have sought to tighten their control over Israel’s already strict interpretation of personal status questions, such as who may marry and whose conversions are kosher in the eyes of the state. The latest attempt comes from the Sephardic haredi party Shas, which last week submitted a bill to the Knesset that would invalidate all conversions to Judaism performed in Israel except for those performed under the auspices of the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate.
The result of this and similar politically motivated legislation is to divide the Jewish people. For that reason, and because this bill discourages religious pluralism, we oppose it.
Not only does the bill seek to disqualify Reform, Conservative and other liberal Jewish movements and their private conversions, it also disqualifies conversions by many modern Orthodox rabbis who operate outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s umbrella. Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim, an organization that helps Israelis navigate the country’s religious bureaucracy, argued that the bill goes against Jewish law. “For hundreds of years, various courts operated within the Jewish communities, with different halachic approaches – some of them more stringent and some less so,” he said. “The common denominator was that everyone finally recognized everyone’s conversions, except for very unusual cases.”
Farber’s historic Jewish communities did not have the power of state institutions behind them. Their representatives did not sit in a coalition government from which they could extract concessions and impose the will of the minority upon the majority. The conversion bill might be a big hit among Shas’ constituents, but it will push the haredi world farther from the majority of Jews in Israel and worldwide.
Similar political motives – this time from Israel’s ultranationalists – are behind the recent Nation State bill, an addition to Israel’s semi-constitutional basic law. The bill would recognize Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people” and emphasize the right to self-determination in Israel as unique to the Jews. At first blush, especially among Zionists like ourselves, the bill seems unobjectionable. But like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unsuccessful attempts to get international recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, this bill will win no converts from audiences in Europe or in the United States.
What it will do instead is confer second-class status to non-Jews. Arabic, for example, would be demoted from a co-equal official language with Hebrew to “a special standing in the state.” We don’t see the benefit.
We understand the ultranationalist impulse to have Israel behave like Arab countries. But to what end? If Israel is sincere about being the “only democracy in the Middle East,” a bill such as this only undercuts that narrative.
Because each of these constituent-driven bills would ultimately work against the national unity that Israel has tried so hard to craft, we must oppose them.