Allan T. Marks
Allan T. Marks

Kotel to conversion — crises that cannot be consigned to the past

Much ink has been spilled about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, acceding on June 25, 2017 to ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) demands that the Israeli government act on two controversial measures: advancing the Conversion Bill and halting the Kotel arrangements. The Conversion bill would grant the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel sole authority over all conversions to Judaism in Israel. Freezing the Kotel prayer agreement blocks, or slows, the creation of an official egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in addition to the existing men’s and women’s areas which are operated as an Orthodox synagogue.

Netanyahu apparently likes walking on the knife’s edge. Here, he has miscalculated, making a dangerous and shameful gamble. By consciously relenting to Haredi demands on these sensitive issues of Jewish identity and religious practice, Netanyahu is risking Israel’s long-term security for his own short-term political goals. The Likud coalition with United Torah Judaism and Shas now threatens Israel.

Why do these actions matter so much, and why have they stirred up so much angst among Jews outside of Israel?

One thread that connects these two issues is the attempt by the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to use the Israeli government to officially delegitimize other streams of Judaism. Though nothing new, that impetus injures the relationship between the State of Israel and Jews around the world. Just don’t fault UTJ or Shas or their Haredi supporters for this situation; they are nothing if not consistent in representing their constituencies and their beliefs. It is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s hypocritical embrace of their platform in order to hold on to his coalition’s majority in the Knesset that imperils Israel. He should know better. He says one thing, then does another. Now, his cavalier attitude toward both non-Israeli Jews and non-Haredi Jews in Israel creates a deeper problem: Israel’s security is put at risk.

To understand why, we must look beyond the government’s actions to the responses they have incited. The outrage has been entirely predictable and justified. By joining these two actions (advancing the Conversion Bill and freezing the Kotel agreement) in the same week, Netanyahu amplified the perception that his government gave in to the demands of the Haredi political parties in the Likud-led coalition government, with an arrogant disregard for Modern Orthodox, liberal and secular Jewish interests. Even cabinet members from Yisrael Beiteinu opposed the Conversion Bill, as it likely would make it harder for their constituents (mainly Russian immigrants in Israel, many not Jewish themselves but married to Jews and not religiously observant) to convert to Judaism.

By alienating vocal and committed supporters of Israel internationally, through the embrace of Haredi-backed initiatives like the Conversion Bill and the Kotel retreat, the Netanyahu government put its own parochial and political goals ahead of Israel’s national interest.

The dismissal of so many Jewish individuals, organizations and leaders does more than diminish Israel’s moral standing as a democracy and a Jewish state, in the broadest sense. By disparaging Jewish communities that do not obey the same halakha, the Haredi parties appear ready to deprive most of the world’s Jews of their homeland. That perception, if bolstered by government actions and allowed to fester, will have devastating, long term consequences to Israel’s economy and military readiness. Ultimately, it could reduce Israel’s strategic flexibility to deal with the threat of Iran and its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. And it reduces Israel’s flexibility to move toward a secure, stable and humane situation in the Occupied Territories (Judea and Samaria), whether under a two-state solution or otherwise.

Despite Israel’s considerable capabilities, strength and grit, the country still depends heavily on the United States for trade, military aid, investment, and diplomatic support. And much of the U.S. commitment going forward relies on American Jews – including both liberal and conservative, American Jews. They support Israel in three key ways: political clout to maintain favorable U.S. government policies; direct financial contributions to Israeli causes and institutions; and defense of Israel in the court of public opinion, from university campuses and editorial pages to statehouses and international organizations. Without this American support, attempts to delegitimize Israel (such as the BDS boycotts and punitive actions by international organizations) could further isolate Israel and jeopardize its survival as a modern, thriving democracy.

Distinguished Israeli Ambassador (ret.) Arthur Koll, the former Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently noted that the “moral power of the liberal, U.S. Jewish community” is the strongest bulwark against BDS and other anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiments – both on campus and in Congress. Reform and Conservative American Jews are highly active on college campuses, in the U.S. Congress and in the press in defense of Israel; both the land and her people – if not always its government. Their deep personal connection to Israel is weakened whenever the Israeli government sends the message: you are not a Jew, we don’t want you, and we don’t need you.

As Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency said to the Jerusalem Post last year, of Reform and Conservative Jews, “You cannot ignore that they are a big part of the Jewish people, a big part of Zionist support for Israel. We cannot accept their support and then say they should not be recognized as equals.”

Netanyahu may be surprised more by the swift global outcry against his recent actions than by the result. There is a tradition of conservative Israeli prime ministers (back to Menachem Begin in 1981) – not themselves frum – introducing conversion legislation to reinforce their coalitions with religious political parties, then backing down in the face of wider opposition.

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly (including in landmark rulings in 1963, 2002 and 2005 regarding the Law of Return and the Population Registration Act) that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel does not have a monopoly on determining who is a Jew for all legal, political or civil reasons. Sidestepping the halakhic debate, the court has said that Israel is not the country of the Jewish community, but rather the county of the Jewish people which is comprised of many different Jewish denominations. The 2017 Conversion Bill is a direct response to the recent Israeli court ruling that would apply in Israel the same standards for conversion as apply outside of Israel, at least as to Orthodox conversions, for citizenship purposes under the Law of Return, while allowing the Chief Rabbinate to retain the power to determine who is a Jew for purposes of marriage, divorce and burial in Israel.

The practical effect of the Conversion Bill would be limited, as it would apply only to conversions in Israel by non-citizens. This is legitimately a civil concern, as conversion and registry as a Jew create a path to citizenship. The main targets of the Conversion Bill are private, Orthodox, conversion courts, outside the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. That is why many Modern Orthodox politicians and groups (including Tzohar) oppose the bill. They do not want to be subject only to Ultra-Orthodox decisions on conversions (including possible rejection of prior conversions by Orthodox conversion courts).

The Israeli Reform and Conservative (Masorti) movements had sought a ruling from the High Court of Justice that their converts in Israel be recognized as Jews under the Law of Return. Conversions outside of Israel (whether by Orthodox, Reform, Conservative or other Jewish communities) are still recognized by the State of Israel for immigration purposes under the Law of Return, which also defines who is a Jew; broadly based on ancestry. The Conversion Bill would not affect conversions performed outside of Israel. But the significance of the Conversion Bill is far greater. For the first time, the State would relinquish to the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate exclusive authority over determining who is a Jew for all converts in Israel, thus granting official license to halakhic criteria that are not universally shared even among Orthodox rabbis and communities in Israel.

The Kotel fracas, in contrast, is aimed squarely at Reform and Conservative Jews, and especially at non-Orthodox women. The government’s freeze of the agreement provoked a widespread outcry from non-Orthodox Jewish organizations. The agreement would have expanded the current, temporary prayer platforms to create a permanent mixed-gender area at the southern section of the Western Wall (Kotel), near the Robinson Arch, for Jews (including women with Torah scrolls and tefillin) to pray. The hard-fought compromise agreement reached in 2016 between Western Wall Heritage Foundation head Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, who is the Orthodox rabbi in charge of the Kotel (and who has since backed away from the agreement), along with Israeli activist Anat Hoffman’s Women of the Wall and other groups, facilitated by Natan Sharansky of the Jewish Agency and approved by the government cabinet, has now been put on hold for up to six months. During that time, the parties have also agreed to delay the related case pending in the High Court of Justice over implementation of the agreement.

There is an old joke about a Jew who, on being rescued after years stranded on a remote desert island, proudly shows off how he survived in his tropical home, including the two synagogues that he built. When asked by the captain of the ship who rescued him why, all alone on the island, he had built two synagogues, the castaway answered, “One to attend, and one to reject. This shul I attend. The other one, I wouldn’t set foot in.”

That small island may have more Jewish pluralism than Israel, if Netanyahu allows the Ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel and its Haredi allies in the Knesset to have their way.

Pluralism, however, is not the only issue here. It would be pointless to argue with the devoutly-held and sincere religious views of the Haredi community in Israel, for whom Jewish pluralism is at best a threat and at worst a fraud. Likewise, it is similarly pointless to seek to persuade many secular Israelis that non-Orthodox streams of Judaism require governmental recognition and support. And it does little good to remind American Jews, passionate about these issues, that in a Jewish democracy like Israel, the legal distinctions between religion and the state blur differently than in the United States.

There is one immediate risk about which each of these groups should be deeply concerned: the government’s cynical actions on the Kotel arrangements and the Conversion Bill threaten Israel’s national security.

The Israeli Declaration of Independence states: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”

The Fourth Netanyahu Government should not try to change that with the arrogant and reckless stroke of a pen.

About the Author
Allan Marks is a publishing adjunct at the MirYam Institute (www.MirYamInstitute.Org) and one of the world’s leading project finance lawyers. He also teaches at the University of California, Berkeley law and business schools. He earned a BA in International Studies from Johns Hopkins University and a JD from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Views expressed are his alone.
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