Conversions Bill Sets Netanyahu on Collision Course With U.S. Jews

Natasha Mozgovaya
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Natasha Mozgovaya

The Jewish Federations of North America on Sunday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block a controversial Knesset bill that would give the Orthodox rabbinate a monopoly on conversions to Judaism, saying it was "deeply shocked" by the initiative.

We are deeply shocked and disappointed to hear that the bill will suddenly be presented tomorrow in its current, highly problematic format without any input from [Jewish Agency chairman Natan] Sharansky or Diaspora communities," wrote JFNA chief Jerry Silverman.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in New York on July 8, 2010. Credit: Reuters

The bill, proposed by David Rotem, an MK for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party, has already spurred a wave of criticism. Jewish leaders in the U.S. have voiced outrage, saying that they received direct assurances from cabinet ministers, including the prime minister himself, that it would not pass into law.

Silverman said he had also forwarded a copy of his letter to Sharansky, in the hope that he would intervene personally with Rotem to broker a compromise. But Rotem later canceled all planned meetings with the Jewish Agency boss, indicating the bill would be put forward in its original form.

"All of the discussions, understandings and efforts seem to have disappeared overnight and we are left feeling upset and even betrayed by MK Rotem and those behind the bill," Silverman wrote.

By early Monday morning it appeared that far from diluting the bill, Rotem would present a version even more strongly worded than the original, including a clause that would give the rabbinate power to rule on the validity of conversions according to a convert's conduct.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a leader of the Reform movement in the U.S., told Haaretz that the decision to proceed with a much worse version of the bill was astonishing, foolish, disruptive".

"It will cause anger among American Jews when Israel needs their support the most, Yoffie said.

Silverman made clear that his organization holds Netanyahu personally responsible for failing to block the potentially divisive legislation.

Mr. Prime Minister, please forgive my blunt and direct tone, but I do feel that this is a critical moment whose gravity cannot be understated," he wrote.

"On behalf of the Jewish Federations of North America we deeply respect and appreciate your accessibility and your leadership and urge you to act decisively to stop this bill from proceeding before the proper discussions that you requested are completed.

The latest crisis in relations between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora relations comes just three days after Netanyahu left the U.S. after a meeting with President Barack Obama, in which he apparently succeeded in smoothing over a diplomatic spat about Israel's construction of settlements in the West Bank.

Earlier this year the government angered U.S. Jews by refusing to meet a congressional delegation brought to Israel by American-Jewish group J Street.