The Jerusalem Post, considered the more conservative paper, has issued a strong editorial against the bill.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky called it “betrayal.” The executive vice president of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, referred to it as “destructive.” Reform Movement head Rabbi Eric Yoffie said it was “astonishing, foolish, disruptive.”
Diaspora Jewry’s leadership has reacted with dismay to Israel Beiteinu MK David Rotem’s decision to ram through the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee – albeit for a preliminary reading – legislation that essentially hands a monopoly over conversions to the Orthodox establishment.
And rightly so. Rotem’s legislation was originally designed to streamline the conversion process for tens of thousands of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union – a mainstay of Israel Beiteinu’s constituency – who received automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return as relatives or descendants of Jews, but who are not Jewish according to Halacha and therefore suffer from various forms of discrimination, such as not being allowed to marry.
But during the parliamentary give and take, haredi legislators’ wrangling morphed Rotem’s legislation into a precedent-making conferral of “responsibility over conversions” to a particularly uncompromising stream of Orthodoxy presently controlling the chief rabbinate.
Diaspora Jews fear this Orthodox rabbinic establishment, which does not hide its contempt for liberal forms of Jewish expression, will roll back previous advances, such as the recognition of conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis abroad. If ratified, indeed, the bill would dispel the blissful ambiguity that has governed the status of the chief rabbinate in the field of conversions at a particularly inopportune time.
IN RECENT years, discussion among Jewish leaders and thinkers both in Israel and in the Diaspora has gradually moved away from narrow definitions of Judaism based on religious and ethnic criteria toward a broader more inclusive concept known as “peoplehood.” First coined by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, peoplehood is “the awareness which an individual has of being a member of a group that is known, both by its own members and by outsiders, as a people.”
Revival of Kaplan’s “peoplehood,” evidenced most prominently in the Jewish Agency’s new programming policy shift, is an attempt to somehow bridge the terrifying rifts that split the disparate groups making up the Jewish people, especially between liberal Diaspora Jewry and their nationalist Israeli brethren.
Here's an update from Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, that was sent out via a KOACH email blast:
Update from Natan Sharansky
Jerusalem, 2nd Av התש"ע
July 13, 2010
I am writing to bring you up to date on developments over the past 48 hours related to the conversion bill of MK David Rotem. As you may recall from my letter in March, the implications of this bill could be profound for Israel-Diaspora relations.
In a surprise move apparently calculated to enable quick, unopposed passage of his bill, MK David Rotem brought it before the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee on Monday morning.
After vociferous debate in which many MKs expressed deep-seated opposition to the bill, it nevertheless passed the committee by a vote of 5-4, rallying the support of MKs from Israel Beitenu and the haredi parties Shas and Agudat Yisrael. The bill is expected to go to the Knesset plenum for the three required readings in the coming weeks, though, we hope, not before the Knesset goes into recess in the middle of next week.
When I spoke at the Knesset Law Committee, I explained to the MKs that the passage of this bill would send a loud message to world Jewrythat they had been betrayed and that Israel was questioning the legitimacy of their Judaism. Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America attended the Knesset Law Committee and explained cogently the implications of this legislation both to Knesset members and the media.
Once the bill passed through the committee, our efforts turned toward thwarting the intention to move the bill forward through the Knesset plenum in the few remaining days before the Knesset goes into its summer recess. That very day I had an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as well as with Speaker Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers, in order to make sure that no additional surprises are in store for us in the days ahead.
In parallel, the Jewish Agency took to the airwaves and spoke to journalists about the urgent need to prevent a needless rift in the world Jewish community. I can assure you that the issue is becoming as important to Israelis as it is to Diaspora communities. In the past 48 hours, this issue has received a prominent place in the pages of Israel's newspapers and in Hebrew-language radio and television broadcasts, nearly all of which carried our message of the importance of unity in these difficult days.
We continue to meet with key players in the political system, as well as to keep up our efforts in the media. We are committed to ensuring that the Diaspora's position is heard clearly by all members of Knesset and ministers in the government so that they can fully understand the gravity of the consequences of this legislation
We will continue to update you as this important issue moves forward.