U.S. Jews Should Help Israel Redraft Its Immoral Citizenship Laws

The U.S. Jewish leadership should devote its efforts to the right cause, as their fight over conversion reforms was a pointless exercise.

It was a classic lobby job. The weak and wavering politicians identified, precise pressure applied at the exact time and place, threats made, allies enlisted, reporters briefed and offending legislation shot down. A perfect result. The leaders of the American Reform and Conservative movements must be very pleased with themselves this week at the effective way in which they coerced Benjamin Netanyahu into reneging on his coalition promises and blocking Dudu Rotem's new conversion law.

But they shouldn't be. It was a totally pointless exercise that achieved nothing and wasted an opportunity to make a real change in the future. Not that they were wrong in objecting to the clause in the law which effectively denies recognition of any conversion not sanctioned by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, but the stark reality is that even without that clause, the situation of converts who went through the Reform or Conservative process would still be dire.

The laws change at the whim of any random coalition, and the attempts to fight them in the Supreme Court take years and are rarely effective. Converts, of whatever stripe, are hostages. They never know what fundamental civil right they may have to fight for next. They are political footballs, victims of power struggles between rabbis who care next to nothing for their plight. If they converted in an Orthodox rabbinical court, another court may one day suddenly revoke their conversion. They cannot get married at many of the (state-funded ) religious councils and if they converted abroad, they are subject to the petty tyrants of the Interior Ministry when trying to become Israeli citizens. And even if they manage to overcome all the obstacles and start a family in Israel, they have to live with the fear that some day in the distant future, their children may not be considered Jewish enough for whatever Haredi-dominated coalition may rule our lives then.

North American Jews making aliyah
Nir Keidar

But there is nothing new about any of this, the "Who is a Jew?" controversy has been with us since David Ben-Gurion's days and it will never be solved. The ultra-Orthodox establishment will never recognize a convert who did not go through the hell of their Batei Din (rabbinical courts ) as a Jew, (and even then, it will remain a stigma for life - have you ever heard of a ger getting a shidduch with a Haredi rabbi's daughter? ) and their word will remain law as long as they have preponderance among the religious. The demography is clear - that won't change in our lifetime.

Countless campaigns and outreach programs haven't changed the basic fact that Reform and Conservative communities remain few and far-between in Israel and are rarely the synagogues of choice for secular Israelis on Yom Kippur or for junior's bar mitzvah. They should stop trying to compete with the Orthodox as there will never be a level playing field, and embrace the concept that rabbis are not the ones who should decide who can be part of a Jewish community.

In America and a few places elsewhere, this idea has worked well for many federations and temples who stopped whining about assimilation, and instead began welcoming spouses and children of mixed marriages. The problem of conversion in Israel should be tackled in the same way. "Who is a Jew" is an obsolete concept and fighting over it takes us again and again down a dead-end alley.

The only way of making any headway is to finally address the much wider issue of citizenship. Most politicians are afraid of touching that because they fear that any tampering with the Law of Return will open up a wider debate on the identity of the Jewish state and its increasingly problematic relationship with its non-Jewish citizens, and of course the future of its Palestinian subjects across the Green Line. They prefer to postpone opening that particular can of worms until the day when we reach an utopian peace with all our surroundings.

But the challenges of 21st century emigration trends are too great for a law that was designed 60 years ago to deal with absorbing the refugees of the Holocaust. Just look at how the government is tying itself in knots, trying to find a formula that will allow some children of foreign workers who have lived here all their young lives to remain. And the often racist methods used by the Interior Ministry to keep out Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens, not to mention the shambles that is the ever-changing policy regarding the Ethiopian Falashmura.

Next week, Netanyahu is convening high-level meetings on the Falashmura, in preparation for yet another U-turn. The Law of Return is increasingly an obstacle between Israel and the continuously evolving Jewish communities around the world, and effectively hands the key to the nation's gates to the most reactionary, non-Zionist rabbis, allowing them to decide who can be a citizen in the state they have no allegiance to.

If the Jewish American leadership is really interested in making a change, and not simply safeguarding the narrow interests of their local allies, they should devote the considerable resources they invest in lobbying and advocacy in Israel toward a radical redrafting of the citizenship laws. This does not have to mean a dilution of Israel's Jewish identity. In the clear guidelines of who is eligible to become a citizen, affinity to the Jewish people will be a major factor. Many countries in the West have similar laws designed to give an advantage to immigrants who have some historical or cultural connection to their prospective country. Along with a citizenship law, we can finally get on to drawing up a bill of rights for Israeli citizens which, among many other things, will end the national shame by which hundreds of thousands of Israelis are not allowed to get married without a rabbi's sanction.

Putting the screws on Netanyahu is easy. All they had to do was threaten not to help him out any more in Washington and he scurried to block the law. But that trick won't work every time, certainly not with a different prime minister, or president. And anyway, if Israel deserves support, then an obscure clause in an irrelevant law should not be a condition. But if U.S. Jews find it hard to defend immoral Israeli policies, then how can fixing another immoral law justify that?