Yaakov Neeman (Emil Salman)
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman Photo by Emil Salman
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Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman said on Thursday that assimilation into non-Jewish society overseas is threatening to do for Judaism what Adolf Hitler tried and failed to do in World War II.

Speaking at a panel on conversion at the President's Conference in Jerusalem, the justice minister rejected recent criticism from American rabbis over Israel's conversion policy. "The problem in exile isn't conversion, it's assimilation," Neeman said. "How many [new] Jews join the Diaspora Jewry by converting, and how many [Jews] assimilate? Let's face the truth. What Hitler - may his name and memory be forgotten - didn't manage to do is happening in the Diaspora with its horrific assimilation."

The panel was titled "Conversion: Who Keeps the Gate for the Jewish Nation?" and was chaired by journalist Shmuel Rosner. Neeman also slammed the panel as an example of sinat chinam (baseless hatred ): "We can sit and solve our problems," he said. "No one should interfere with how the other is praying, which commandments he carries out and which not. But one thing is clear - what kept the people of Israel together long enough to go back to our homeland after 2,000 years in exile is the Jewish religion, and the Jewish religion is very diverse."

Neeman was speaking after another minister, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, had delivered a short speech and then left the stage, prompting speculation about whether he was uncomfortable sharing a stage with both a conservative and reform rabbi.

The panel was titled "Conversion: Who Keeps the Gate for the Jewish Nation?" and was chaired by journalist Shmuel Rosner. Participants included conservative Rabbi Gilah Dror; Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky; reform Rabbi Peter Knobel; and Dr. Dov Maimon of the Jewish People Policy Institute. The only ultra-Orthodox participant, Rabbi Yecheskel Weinfeld, of the Center for Advanced Talmudic Studies, canceled at the last moment, prompting Rosner to allegedly spontaneously invite Yishai to the stage. Yishai agreed, apparently setting a precedent by appearing on the same stage as conservative and reform rabbis.

In his brief remarks, Yishai said that, according to the view of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, conversion should be "as lenient as possible." Yishai attacked "political organizations," hinting perhaps at the reform and conservative movements, for opposing the Orthodox monopoly on conversion. He said that adhering to the rules of halakha in the conversion process was essential, because "if we actually change the rules and act outside the value-based Jewish rules, we lose our values and our identity. What keeps the Jewish people is its unity. It's important we are united."

Yishai also said that ten years ago, a study was published in the United States showing "the Jewish gene" was passed along the maternal line, affirming the ancient halakhic line of Jewishness passing along the maternal line. This remark was met with sneers from the audience.

After emphasizing once more the need for unity within the halakha, Yishai left the hall abruptly, prompting Rabbi Dror to comment: "It's all right if he didn't want to shake hands with us, but at least he could stay and talk with us."

Yishai's spokesman, Roi Lahmanovitz, said the minister usually leaves immediately after speaking, and his departure had nothing to do with the presence of reform and conservative rabbis on the stage.