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Israel Conversion Bill: An Open Letter to Benjamin Netanyahu

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A controversy has erupted between Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party and leaders of the North American Jewish community over a bill on conversion in Israel approved in committee and slated be brought to the Knesset floor. The non-Orthodox streams of Judaism (Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist) as well as many other North American Jewish leaders representing the vast majority of Diaspora Jewry have been fighting vigorously against this bill since it was introduced in April of this year. The bill, authored by MK David Rotem, would legislatively consolidate all of the power for conversion in Israel in the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

This bill threatens to revive the notorious who-is-a-Jew issue and drive a wedge between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry by distinguishing between Jews by birth and Jews by choice and altering the Law of Return. This past Sunday, in a stealth move, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted on the controversial Rotem Conversion bill, where it passed 5 to 4. This vote sends shock waves throughout the Conservative and Masorti community in Israel and the Diaspora.

We have been on the forefront of opposing this dangerous bill and met last month with high-ranking government officials -- including President Shimon Peres -- as well as Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, who pledged their support of my efforts.

In the wake of Sunday's vote, we have mobilized the members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative and Masorti rabbis, to fight this legislation. I am en route to Israel, arriving Sunday to participate in this emergency coordinated effort of major North American Jewish organizations. I have also written an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which I have included below.

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Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

I have bad news and I have good news.

The bad news is that rabbis all over the world are thanking you for giving them a Rosh Hashanah sermon.

The good news is that you get to write every one of them.

The sermon we all want to give is one in which you, as a visionary leader, make an unambiguous statement in opposition to this bill which divides Israel from the Diaspora. We hope that we can invoke your name, Mr. Prime Minister, with the same spirit of reverence we reserve for the great leaders of the Jewish people.

Regrettably, David Rotem has already brought us a tragically cynical Rosh Hodesh Av homily, when he unexpectedly reintroduced his bill, undermining discussions you set in motion with Natan Sharansky. Our Tradition teaches that the exile of our people was brought about by senseless fighting among ourselves. Please, Mr. Prime Minister, bring us a message for Tishrei that is redemptive.

Our opponents claim that this bill, which alienates the Diaspora, will unify Israel. We have a few questions as to how the Conversion Bill will help Israelis from the FSU whom MK Rotem assures me will all be converted within a year after its passage.

First, since the local courts created by the proposed law still find ultimate authority with the same rabbis, what will change?

Second, Members of Knesset tell me this bill is too little too late. In Israel's free and open society where extremists have given Jewish religion a bad image, many young Israelis don't care whether a potential spouse is halakhically Jewish. The coercive ultra-religious system is a total failure that spends tens of millions of NIS to yield only 1500 converts per year. Of those, 200 are Masorti, who receive no funding. The way to really "solve this problem," is to have options for multiple streams and for the indigenous Israeli expressions that will only flower in a non-coercive system.

Third, the newly revised bill includes a new provision that further strangles the Law of Return by explicitly defining the observance of mitzvot according to extremist rabbis who will now have sole legislative authority.

For the Knesset to vote on this is not only a mockery of democracy, it is an even deeper betrayal of 3,000 years of Jewish tradition.

Judaism's injunction to turn the prospective convert away three times is based not on suspicion, but on the historical Jewish reality of discrimination, ostracism and even death. That deepest desire of our people to find safe harbor from the mortal danger of Jewish identity found its fullest expression in the law of return.

What a bitter irony that this new provision which "turns away" the righteous convert, whether from the FSU or elsewhere, does not do so in order to seek that person's safety, but based on whether they are "religious enough."

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, but on Yom kippur it is sealed. The love of God for Israel is a love that both demands and encourages. We cannot allow this law to divide us, for we want nothing more, all of us, than to support you, the nation of Israel and Am Yisrael. Please, Mr. Prime Minister, let us inscribe you in the book of the great leaders of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President
The Rabbinical Assembly

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