'Who Is a Jew' Redux - Again

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar's suggestion that the Law of Return be amended such that converts will no longer be recognized as Jews under that law underscores once again that the state rabbinate is captive to ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist rabbis.

In the matter of conversion as in many other matters, the chief rabbis are not chiefs of anything, but all told, are low-level emissaries of the ultra-Orthodox Torah scholars.

Amar is not only trying to prevent the immigration of Reform and Conservative converts under the Law of Return, but also that of Orthodox converts. The rabbinate does not hide the fact that the goal of the anti-convert law is to reduce motivation for conversion in all denominations. And this begs the question: Is it really the job of the chief rabbinate of the State of Israel to act as a Border Police roadblock at the entrance to the Jewish nation?

The legal adviser of the rabbinical courts, attorney Shimon Yaakobi, told Haaretz that Amar's suggestion could serve as the basis for a new social contract, since it equalizes the status of converts from all denominations: None will be granted citizenship right away, but will only become citizens through a graduated process over many years.

Is there really a basis for a social contract? The Reform and Conservative communities in the United States are engaged in trench warfare against assimilation and intermarriage, and are making a staunch effort to convince non-Jewish partners to convert. If Amar's suggestion is accepted, it will be a critical blow to this struggle, since the converts will know that they are not recognized by the State of Israel. It will also be a statement to American Jewry that what it may deem so important does not interest us in the least.

Thus, an anti-convert law from Amar's beit midrash [study hall] can serve only as the basis for a deep rift in Israel-Diaspora relations. The chief rabbinate apparently does not understand that the Law of Return is the foundation of Israel's existence, and that it cannot under any circumstances discriminate between Jews by birth and Jews by choice.

The three proposals for social contracts developed in the last few years put forth concepts diametrically opposed to those raised by Amar's anti-converts law. According to these proposals, not only will converts be eligible to immigrate to Israel, but also those who are genuine members of a recognized Jewish community - whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. This will avoid the dispute over the question of whether they are Jewish.

The Israel Democracy Institute's Constitution by Consensus project states that people "with a proven bond with the Jewish people" are eligible to immigrate to Israel. A more right-wing proposal, from the Institute for Zionist Strategy, states that those eligible to move to Israel include people "who have joined the Jewish community and have a proven bond with the Jewish people and its heritage."

The Gavison-Medan Covenant states that "every member of the Jewish people is eligible to immigrate to Israel." Members of the Jewish people include those "who joined the Jewish people and ... have a Jewish lifestyle." The covenant explains that "in a place where there is a developed Jewish community with a binding lifestyle that defines its identity and its members' attachment to it, a person who consistently maintains this lifestyle and is a member of the same community can be considered someone who has joined the Jewish people."

In contrast to Amar's suggestion, these proposals accept all those who truly want to join the Jewish people. All circumvent the question of who is a Jew and can neutralize it once and for all.

The moment is approaching when the High Court of Justice will rule that Reform and Conservative conversions conducted in Israel must be recognized. The coalition is now doing all it can to buy time and defer this judgment. As part of these feverish efforts, the desperate suggestion was raised for a comeback of the Ne'eman Commission on conversion. It would be a lot more reasonable if the coalition were to begin advancing the proposal that citizenship be granted based on membership in a Jewish community and not just based on conversion.