Abuse of Power

The Jewish world reportedly has six months before the Rotem Bill (or some facsimile thereof) returns to the Knesset for further consideration. That should allow us all to more leisurely – and hopefully more reasonably – not only assess the bill’s strengths and weaknesses but ponder a troubling issue peripheral to the legislation, but which was engendered by it.

The bill’s essential aim is to allow non-Jewish Israelis a greater choice of religious courts than presently. The bill, further, formalized the decades-old religious status quo placement of conversion in Israel under the auspices of the country’s official Chief Rabbinate.

On cue, the Jewish Federations of America, local Jewish Federations, Reform and Conservative leaders and an assortment of pundits all, as they say, went ballistic at the notion that halacha, or Jewish religious law, would determine conversion standards in Israel. That, despite the fact that the Rabbinate has overseen conversion in Israel since the country’s founding.

The combusting protesters fantasized that the bill would prevent converts to the Reform or Conservative movements from immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return, that it would have some unidentified but grave impact on American non-Orthodox Jews, and that (here, more a threat than a fantasy) it would alienate such Jews from the Jewish State. They raised the specter of Jews being pulled off the streets in Israel to have their Jewishness revoked, and offered incendiary imagery (like a cartoon showing a shiny water cooler in Israel labeled “Orthodox-Certified Jews” beside an old-fashioned water fountain for “Reform, Conservative and Secular Jews only”).

Seldom if ever has so much misinformation and ill will been sown by people ostensibly concerned with truth and Jewish unity.

A sensible if lonely voice in the wilderness was that of Reform Rabbi Mark Golub, the president of Shalom TV, who decried the Reform and Conservative movement for “overstat[ing] the threat the bill posed,” and “unnecessarily anger[ing] large numbers of uninformed Jews over a bill which does not actually address them at all.” He also took the Anglo-Jewish media to task for “failing to separate fact from hysteria.”

Rabbi Golub noted further what he considers “the most disturbing aspect of the campaign” in America against the Rotem bill: “the subtle suggestion that the bill would jeopardize the bond between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel and would therefore threaten the security and future of the Jewish State.”

It was indeed dismaying to read comments like that of the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s rabbinic group, who contended that the bill’s effect on Israel’s relationship with Jews in America would be “damaging to Israel’s security” – a none-too-veiled “prediction” that if Israel didn’t toe the non-Orthodox line (ill-informed though it might be), American Jews might no longer see Israel as worthy of their support.

More dismaying still was the intervention of Jewish members of the United States Senate. It was widely reported in mid-July that a letter about the Rotem bill had been drafted by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and circulated among other Jewish members of Congress’ upper house for signature. The missive, presumably intended for Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, reportedly expressed the concern of its signatories concerning the Israeli bill.

A spokesman for one signatory to the letter (the text of which has not been made public), Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, referred to his boss’ judgment that the Israeli bill is “divisive” and to his hope that “the Knesset does not pass” it. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan was quoted as saying he was “troubled by a proposal which I believe would make it more difficult for many people who want to convert to do so.”

It is not unheard of for members of Congress to express their feelings about human rights or other fundamental issues to representatives of other countries. But if ever there has been a case of American legislators seeking to influence another government’s consideration of an entirely domestic concern – here, conversions performed in the State of Israel – much less one addressing a religious issue, it has remained well hidden (and for good reason).

Ratcheting up the reason for dismay considerably is the unspoken but hardly untelegraphed implication of the Senators’ letter: that they themselves, as legislators who vote on matters pertinent to Israel’s security, are troubled by the Rotem bill. It would not be unreasonable for Israel to interpret such a message as a warning, one particularly ill conceived, let alone ill timed.

Perhaps at the very top of the “disturbing” column, though, is the question of what brought about the Senatorial stab at an Israeli internal affair in the first place. It is certainly possible that Senator Wyden, despite his full plate of domestic concerns and legislative proposals, somehow just caught wind of the Rotem bill on his own and felt compelled to try to do something about it.

But it is known that representatives of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, representatives of the Union for Reform Judaism and officials of the Jewish Federations of North American were making the rounds on Capitol Hill several days before the first reports of the letter appeared.

If it turns out that American Jewish communal leaders took upon themselves to pressure American elected officials to meddle in the domestic affairs of another country, particularly in a matter of no concern to the vast majority of those officials’ constituents (and in fact contrary to the concerns of a good portion of their Jewish ones), would that constitute a responsible wielding of communal clout, or an egregious, unprecedented abuse of the same?


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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