Monday, July 26, 2010


Prime Minister Netanyahu has shelved the Rotem Bill. The Rotem Bill was in the Israeli and American news last week. The bill sought to give sole authority on conversion to Judaism in the State of Israel to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. The context of this bill is a struggle between the Orthodox Zionists who established the Chief Rabbinate and the non-Zionist Orthodox, also known as Haredim (or, colloquially, "black hats") who, in recent years, have taken over increasing swathes of Zionist Orthodox turf. One of the areas that distinguish the Zionist camp from the Haredim is their willingness to provide more lenient Halacha rulings in order to build bridges with secular Jews. The Haredim view that as a lax commitment to the integrity of Halacha. At stake, is the Jewishness of tens of thousands of Russian-Israelis.
Be that as it may, why did this make the American press?
First, Israel is news.
Second, this became a cause celebre for the organized Jewish community in America. Jewish mailing lists were full of calls for action from the Conservative and Reform movements and other mainstream, Jewish bodies. People warned that, should the Rotem Bill pass, then North American Jewish converts would not be able to immigrate to Israel under Israel's so-called "Law of Return". And that the bill was offensive to American Jews.
I have ben unable to get answers to the following questions:
1. Given how few North American Jews move to Israel each year, consider how many Jews-by-choice are in that group. My guess is less than a dozen a year. Is this worth all the trouble?
2. If tens of thousands of non-Jewish Russians were able to gain entry to Israel under the "Law of Return", wouldn't it be at least as easy for an American who identifies as Jewish to do the same? The minor annoyance of dealing with the Israeli rabbinate for marriage and the like will help bond this new immigrant to her secular, Jewish Israeli friends. They will advise her how to work the system.
3. How can they be eligible to "return" under the "Law of Return" when they are from the United States?
4. American Jews would vigorously oppose an institution such as a State-mandated Chief Rabbinate. Why is it treif here and kosher over there?
5. The "Law of Return" guarantees a host of preferential rights to members of one ethnic/religious group at the expense of others. The benefits include housing, freedom of expression, participation in public life and cultural expression. Such distinctions are instinctive abhorrent to mainstream American Jews. Why is this desirable in Israel?
6. Orthodox communities in Chicago and across the States reject the Jewishness of Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism. Yet, liberal Jews continue to fund the Orthodox communities and does not take offense at Orthodox strictures or disapproval. If liberal Jews can live in peace with such disapproval, why do they care so much what is done thousands of miles away?
I have tried to engage a leader of a national Jewish organization with these questions. I got no answers.
In the absence of answers, I am drawing the following conclusions:
1. There is an "outsourcing" of Jewish nationalistic sentiment. It is unacceptable on our shores but desirable in Israel.
2. Mainstream American Jewish organizations feel only as Jewish as the State of Israel says they are.
It's time to extend our ethical standards to Israel too and it's time to claim our own Jewishness and not worry about what Israel will say.
Oh, and how come it is not right for American Jews to express an opinion on Israel's conduct in the Occupied Territories/Gaza/Lebanon but we wade right in and tell the Israeli parliament not to pass a bill.

The Israeli media credited the American Jewish pressure for scotching the Rotem Bill.

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