Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that he would oppose a conversion bill that has rekindled the age-old debate over who is a Jew and has provoked an angry response among liberal Jewish groups abroad whose support is critical to Israel.
Last week, an Israeli parliamentary committee gave preliminary approval to a draft legislation that would give Orthodox rabbis in Israel more control over conversions. The more liberal Reform and Conservative movements that represent the vast majority of Jews outside Israel contend the new legislation would be a dangerous blow to religious pluralism.
Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that he feared the bill would create a rift in the Jewish world and that if he couldn't find a compromise solution, he would ask his coalition partners to vote against it. The bill would have to pass three votes in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to become law.
Under the current practice, Israel only partially recognizes conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis inside Israel, while those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis outside the country are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship like other Jews. The proposed legislation would give Israel's chief rabbinate the legal authority over all matters of conversion in Israel.
The group most likely to suffer from the change would be immigrants who converted to Judaism abroad and could now be denied Israeli citizenship.
The bill touches a nerve in the Reform and Conservative movements. Though they are strong abroad, their presence is marginal in Israel, where Orthodox rabbis have a near monopoly over religious practice.
While staunch backers of Israel, liberal Jewish movements abroad look worriedly at the prospect of the country's Orthodox religious establishment further entrenching its control. They say passage of the bill would also be a blow to the legitimacy of non-Orthodox rabbis the world over.
Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of the Union of Reform Judaism, said the bill, if passed, would mark a "crisis of the first order."
"It would be an enormous blow to the unity of the Jewish people and the principle of religious freedom in Israel," said Saperstein, who is visiting the country to lobby lawmakers to drop the bill.
"The American Jewish community will remain strongly engaged in Israel, but the message will be sent that the government of Israel does not accept our rabbis and our movement as legitimate, and it would make all our work much more difficult."
Of the world's roughly 13 million Jews, half live in Israel and most of the rest are concentrated in North America.
Israeli religious authorities' skepticism about the legitimacy of overseas conversions has been cited as one of the main causes of a growing rift between Israel and world Jewry.
Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi and director of a body that helps Israelis navigate the rabbinical bureaucracy, said he was in favor of conversion reform but not at the price of damaging the delicate relations between Israel and the world Jewish community.
"We have to find a way to resolve this problem without paying too heavy a price, which is alienating 85 percent of American Jews," he said.
The bill has even provoked a group of Jewish U.S. senators to draft a rare letter of complaint to Israel's ambassador to Washington, The Jerusalem Post newspaper reported.
Caley Gray, communications director for signatory Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey), told the Jerusalem Post that "Senator Lautenberg hopes the Knesset does not pass this legislation, which he views as divisive."
The bill's sponsor, David Rotem, an Orthodox Jewish lawmaker from the largely secular Yisrael Beitenu party, has rejected the criticism, saying his goal was to make conversion easier for immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who make up most of his party's voters.
Rotem insists the bill would not affect North American Jews.
Roughly 1 million people immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many with tenuous ties to Judaism.
The bill is just the latest squabble between Netanyahu and the head of Rotem's party, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who have clashed on a number of policy matters in recent weeks. Its progress likely depends on whether the two resume their cooperation.
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