Israel Asks, 'Who Is a Jew?'

Every few years, the "who is a Jew?" debate rears its head in Israel. It usually causes a stir and much wrangling and is then closeted until it sees the light of day again when the cycle repeats itself with fervor.

The debate has arisen again but nowadays it isn’t termed “who is a Jew?” It is tabbed under the more PC “conversion bill reform” label. Regardless of nomenclature, the issue reverberates forcefully each time it is recalled, disquieting government coalitions, rattling party alliances, and threatening Israeli government ties with American Jewry.

The current conversion bill being proposed for Knesset vote by Netanyahu coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu suggests that control of conversion to Judaism be handed over to the country’s chief rabbinate, an orthodox Jewish body. Currently the law allows for conversions to be recognized by Israel without involvement of the chief rabbi.

The push to vote on the bill this week has caused a near crisis within the government, as Netanyahu rejected voting on the bill prior to next week’s impending summer recess and Yisrael Beiteinu party leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to vote down the concurrent budget bill and quit the coalition if the bill didn’t come up on the Knesset agenda.

There is no easy solution for Netanyahu, who is caught in a crossfire.

According to orthodoxy, the only route to Judaism is via maternal heredity or through conversion. And in Israel, conversion is passable only when it adheres to Orthodox Jewish standards. Conservative and Reform conversions don’t count.

“We’re not looking to recruit,” ultra-Orthodox legislator Moshe Gafni told Parliament earlier this month in a heated debate, saying even “membership in a beer-drinkers’ club is based on specific criteria.”

This puts the Netanyahu government at odds with American Jewish leaders who represent mostly Reform and Conservative communities.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni told the Jerusalem Post that Netanyahu should put his foot down and come up with a more palatable solution to the bill instead of alienating Diaspora Jewry and giving the ultra-Orthodox a monopoly on conversions.

Livni accused Netanyahu of caving into Lieberman, Shas, and Labor and of being ungrateful to Diaspora Jews.

“Netanyahu asks them to help with the crises and defend his policies,” she said. “This bill would make it harder for Diaspora Jewry to feel a connection to Israel when we need to be doing everything possible to draw them closer. It’s especially hard for young Americans to connect to Israel if Israel becomes a synonym for haredim.”

The problem with the current law -- which would be further complicated by the proposed bill -- is that a person can be Jewish enough to qualify for the Law of Return and receive Israeli citizenship but not enough to satisfy the Orthodox rabbinate establishment which controls marriage. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are stuck in this holding pattern, including nearly half a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky warns the legislation would create rifts by defining many former Soviet Union citizens as "second-class Jews."

Lieberman downplays conversion law controversy, saying his party advocates “live and let live,” non-intrusive principles when it comes to Jewish community life outside Israel. At the same time, Lieberman negates the interconnectedness of the Diaspora-Israel connection. “They can run their community life without us. It's the same thing here: They should not interfere here," he told press.

In the interim, after a week of high tension and speculation, Netanyahu and Lieberman seem to have agreed that a pre-summer recess coalition crisis over the bill isn’t ideal.  Both issued conciliatory statements late Monday in deference to broader political aims. But the deep chasm on the bill and numerous other policy issues still separate the two.

For the time being, the conversion bill is buried and dispute with American Jewish leaders has been diverted. But when strategically convenient, it will undoubtedly arise again, creating crisis, alarm, and debate inside Israel and beyond.