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October 3, 2015 | 20th Tishrei 5776

The Dangerous Misperceptions of Rabbi Amar

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, guest blog on, September 26, 2010

Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, has no understanding of American politics. And his misperceptions are dangerous to the wellbeing of the State of Israel. 
In a recent op-ed article, Rabbi Amar attacked the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in America for their vehement opposition to the conversion bill proposed by MK David Rotem. Rabbi Steven Wernick and I responded with an op-ed of our own. Most of the debate focused on the substance of the bill. The arguments on both sides are well known and need not be repeated here. 
Yet one point requires further elucidation. Rabbi Amar was distressed that members of the Jewish caucus in Congress urged Israeli lawmakers to drop the conversion bill. According to Rabbi Amar, the only reason that caucus members chose to speak out was pressure from the non-Orthodox movements. Referring to an article that I wrote about how the involvement of Congress on this issue was potentially harmful to Israel, he insisted that it never would have happened without arm-twisting from Jewish groups. According to Amar, “U.S. congressmen do not spontaneously take an interest in internal Israeli religious issues that do not affect their constituents.” 
That, however, was exactly the problem. The conversion issue did affect their constituents—meaning here their Jewish constituents, who were outraged by the bill. Seeing it as a gratuitous insult, American Jews erupted with fury. The Jewish press was immediately filled with expressions of anger and bewilderment by Jewish leaders who work diligently on Israel’s behalf and do not understand why the Jewish state they love would find it necessary to insult the legitimacy of their rabbis and their Judaism. 
The members of the Jewish caucus – proud Jews with deep roots in the Jewish community – did not require lobbying to be concerned about the bill and its implications for Jews in their districts. For them, and indeed virtually all members of Congress, the great majority of the rabbis they know, the synagogues they visit, and the Jews who vote for them are Reform and Conservative. When these Jews are upset, their Congressmen notice.  
Furthermore, members of Congress have diverse views on religion but they share a deep commitment to religious freedom and human rights. Rabbi Amar seems to feel that what happens in Israel in the realm of religion can remain a completely internal matter. Yet this is absurd. In the internet age when 24-hour news shows and saturation coverage of Israel are a reality of life, the actions of Israel’s religious establishment cannot be kept from the headlines. And the fact is that American politicians simply do not understand why Israel is the only industrialized democracy in the world where many of its own citizens have to leave the country to marry; where Reform and Conservative Judaism are discriminated against by the state; and where government religious bureaucracies affirm the validity of religious conversions one day and then disqualify them the next.  The problem is not that religious extremism exists in Israel. It exists everywhere.
The problem is that a state-supported religious monopoly raises issues that individual acts of extremism do not. And Rabbi Amar’s claim that the religious situation in Israel is “different” than America will satisfy neither members of Congress nor anyone else. 
I happen to agree that the involvement of Congressmen in Israel’s religious affairs is troubling at any time and particularly now. I suggest, however, that instead of issuing blistering attacks on Reform and Conservative Jews, Rabbi Amar should do two things: endorse the efforts of Natan Sharansky to find a compromise on the conversion bill acceptable to all, and consider promoting a democratic, “free-market” religious system that will restore the honor of Torah in the Jewish state and lead to a true flowering of Jewish life. 

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