American Jews Battle Israeli Conversion Bill

A delegation of Jewish leaders from the U.S. is in Israel lobbying against the proposed legislation, and they are calling the situation one of the most serious internal crises to hit the Jewish world in recent years.

A battle is brewing that is pitting the powerful American Jewish community against some of the leading Jewish figures in Israel.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the disagreement over a controversial law that deals with conversion to Judaism could "tear apart" the Jewish people.

America is a close second to Israel in terms of how many Jews live there. And the U.S. Jewish community is vital in terms of the political, financial and moral support it lends the Jewish state. So when a senior Jewish delegation representing some of the most powerful Jewish groups comes from the U.S. to Jerusalem for an emergency meeting, it's serious.

'Unacceptable'

"We do not want to see a schism among the Jews of the United States and Israel," said Rabbi Daniel Allen, director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. "This will say to the Jews of the United States that they don't have a serious place in this country, and that is unacceptable to us."

Allen said American Jewish groups are in crisis mode.

"This would be an affirmative act of the Knesset to create a second class of Jewery," he said. "And therefore it is a much more important moment in time in terms of the sweep of Jewish history."

There is a fundamental divide between Jews in the U.S. and Jews in Israel. Most American Jews belong to the more liberal branches of Judaism -- the Reform or Conservative movements. In Israel, the Orthodox are in almost total control of Jewish life.

American Jews are upset that the conversion bill making its way through the Knesset will, for the first time, give sole control over conversions to Israel's chief rabbinate, which is dominated by Orthodox Jews.

At the moment in Israel, conversions performed outside the country by the more liberal branches of Judaism are honored. American Jews fear that could change if power is handed over to the rabbinate.

"Never in the history of the state of Israel has there been a law to determine the status of a convert," said Rabbi Naamah Kelman, dean of Hebrew Union College.

'A Ticking Bomb'

The bill's sponsor is Member of the Knesset David Rotem, who represents hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of them from the former Soviet Union who are trying to formally convert to Judaism in Israel.

The conversion process in Israel can sometimes take years, costs thousands of dollars and ultimately leads nowhere. Some conversions have been overturned by competing rabbis from the Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox communities.

Rotem said the point of his bill is to make the conversion process easier by decentralizing it. If the bill passes, municipal rabbis will be allowed to approve conversions under the auspices of the chief rabbinate.

"I am trying to get some parts out from the rabbinical courts and to give it to the municipality courts or rabbis who are much more friendly to people who want to convert," he said.

The many problems with the conversion process in Israel must be addressed to simplify the system, he said.

"We are sitting on a ticking bomb. We have got 400,000 new immigrants who came from the former Russian union who are not recognized as Jews according to the Jewish law," Rotem said. "They are serving in the Israeli army, and they are being taken as hostages today for the Reform and Conservative movements who are against this law with no reason."

Rotem said American Jews are using their power to interfere in internal Israeli affairs.

"I am willing to talk to them. I am not willing to be hostage," he said. "I am not willing to be threatened, and I'm not willing to be blackmailed."

The bill has already passed through committee, and the next step is for it to be voted on in the Knesset. It's not clear whether that will happen before or after the legislative body disbands for summer recess at the end of this week. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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