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Israel Is Not a Monopoly of Rabbis

This was not a slip of the tongue. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking at the GA (that is the boring annual gathering of the Jewish Federations no reader of Jewcy’s cares about), chose her words carefully, and got the cheers … Read More

By / November 20, 2008

This was not a slip of the tongue. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, speaking at the GA (that is the boring annual gathering of the Jewish Federations no reader of Jewcy’s cares about), chose her words carefully, and got the cheers she expected:

"Israel is not a monopoly of rabbis," the Kadima chairwoman noted. "Israel is a Jewish state, but a Jewish state is not a religious state but mainly a nation-state."

The crowd was quite happy, quite impressed. Is this the beginning of a new era? Look at recent developments concerning conversion:

Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel, Diaspora Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog and Jewish Agency chairman Ze’ev Bielski, all outgoing as the country goes to elections and Bielski takes a leave of absence to compete in the Kadima primary, said the conversion process was too inflexible and harmed aliya and society.

And this happens as the Jewish Agency has passed a somewhat revolutionary resolution calling on the Israeli government to establish “an independent conversion authority which will facilitate and assist in the conversion process”. No, it will not be an institution free of Orthodox influence. But it will be much more tolerant than its predecessors. And it will be one lead by people who understand the urgent need to reform (even if not Reform) the conversion process.

Why is all this happening now?

Here’s the cynic’s explanation: Livni, for one, is angry with the Haredi Shas Party for refusing to join her coalition and forcing new elections. “Not a monopoly of rabbis” is her way of saying: if I’m Prime Minister, you’re going to lose influence. It’s also her way of telling Israelis: vote for me if you want Haredi influence reduced (implying that a vote for Netanyahu will have the opposite outcome).

But here’s the more profound explanation: Israeli leaders have heard many times that Israel’s conversion process is unacceptable and intolerable as far as the US community is concerned. Heard – and ignored. As often happens, a crisis was needed for the attention to be drawn to the broken conversion system, and this came last May when “High Rabbinical Court of Israel severely censured the head of the country’s Conversion Authority for performing” what they thought was “conversion in a non-kosher way”:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wasn’t happy with the court’s decision: “Conversion in Israel is a national priority”, he said. “I am determined to resolve the current conversion crisis and improve the process of conversion in Israel.” This was a moment in which the truth about conversion crystallized: it’s not the rabbis, but rather the politicians, who make the important decisions. Olmert can’t hide behind a rabbi’s back. Livni can’t. Netanyahu – the leading candidate (by far) to be the next Prime Minister – can’t.

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