Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency for Israel and now, as The New York Times reports, leader of “a committee of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements” on the controversial conversion legislation currently being debated in Israel and by Jews worldwide, has an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post laying bare the state of affairs as it stands, and gesturing toward a silver lining amidst the ugly infighting.
The Times explains:
The bill that so angered American Jewish leaders was actually aimed at making conversion easier for the 300,000 Israelis among the 1 million who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. Those Israelis are not, by Orthodox rabbinic law, considered Jewish because they come from mixed parentage. The law would have tried to make conversion easier by granting conversion powers to local rabbis across the country, a group considered closer to their communities.
But after objections from the ultra-Orthodox, the bill formally placed authority for conversion in the hands of the chief rabbinate and declared Orthodox Jewish law to be the basis of conversion, making Americans fear that their more lenient conversion processes would be invalidated.
Sharansky contextualizes the deep difficulties raised by the legislation, and the opposition to it, from an Israeli perspective:
One side of the debate is asking a fair question: Why can’t Israel be more like America? Why are state institutions and politicians given power over spiritual matters? But Israel is not America. In its relationship with the Jewish world, Israel sees itself as the state of all Jews, a principle expressed most prominently in the Law of Return, a Knesset law from 1950 that grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wants it.
This simple fact – that any Jew can receive Israeli citizenship and that millions have done so – means that Israeli officials must have some way of determining who is eligible for citizenship.
Therefore it is the civil magistrates who must deal with a question that might be viewed as religious under other conditions – who is Jewish and who is not.
It is this unavoidable result of statehood – and not simply, as is commonly assumed, haredi pressure or political blackmail – that leads some Israeli leaders to repeatedly try to establish a universal benchmark for conversion.
Then there is the other side, which asks: Why do these Diaspora Jews interfere in our conversion legislation? We don’t interfere in their conversions.
By the same principle articulated before – the Jewish state is the state of all Jews – every Jewish community should be able to feel that Israel is its home too. That is why Israel cannot pass legislation that is viewed by these communities as undermining this connection.
So we are caught in a complex dilemma.