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August 30, 2015 | 15th Elul 5775
Jewish Agency's Blunder

The Jewish Agency's Blunder
by Eric Yoffie
Appeared in The Forward

July 3, 1998

The Israeli government is preparing to reintroduce a conversion bill in the Knesset this fall; its primary ally in this effort, perhaps unwittingly, is the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Given the uproar caused when the first conversion bill was introduced in the Knesset in April of 1997, it is not easy to comprehend why the agency, dominated by American fundraisers, would collaborate with the Israeli government to pass a bill intended to deny Reform and Conservative rabbis the right to perform conversions in Israel. That it has done so, however, is clear from events that have transpired over the last five months and at agency meetings in Jerusalem last week.

What we have is a textbook case of the Israeli government manipulating an American Jewish communal leadership that is both naive and out of touch with the real concerns of its constituents.

The roots of the crisis go back to the collapse of the Ne'eman process last February. The Ne'eman Commission, chaired by Finance Minister Yaakov Ne'eman, had met 50 times over seven months to find an approach to the issue that would be acceptable to all streams of Judaism. Despite far-reaching concessions by the Reform and Conservative movements, the Commission's recommendation - that conversions in Israel be performed by the chief rabbinate, but that the Reform and Conservative movements would cooperate with the chief rabbinate in the preparation of candidates for conversion - were rejected by the chief rabbinate. Because the Israeli court system was the only effective weapon still available to them, the movements decided to renew their appeals to Israel's supreme court.

The return to court created a dilemma for the Israeli government, which knew full well that the Supreme Court might eventually support the Reform and Conservative position. The Orthodox parties would threaten to bring down the government if the conversion bill were not passed. Israel's strategy, therefore, was to pressure the movements to withdraw their cases.

Through a series of calls and meetings, Israeli government representatives attempted to create divisions within and between the movements. In late April, the government prevailed upon the Council of Jewish Federations-United Jewish Appeal leadership to issue a leadership briefing that attacked the Conservative movement for not withdrawing its cases. In early June, Professor Ne'eman used a CJF-organized conference call with federation leadership to step up the attack and to name names.

Yet Reform and Conservative leaders remained firm in their commitment to pursuing their appeals. They pointed out that these cases involved real people with real problems. They noted as well that to withdraw the cases was tantamount to accepting the status quo - permanent second-class status in Israel.

The Government then turned to its back-up strategy: convincing a portion of American Jews that the conversion law isn't so bad after all. Thus, the draft legislation just submitted has been changed somewhat, and the claim is being made that it represents a victory for non-Orthodox Jews. In fact, it is essentially the same bill presented last year, maintaining the Orthodox monopoly over conversion. The one difference is that the legislation calls for the establishment of "Jewish Studies Institutes" to prepare candidates for conversion; the institutes have boards of seven people, two of whom are appointed by the non-Orthodox movements. But the chief rabbinate has refused to participate - even though it retains full authority to do the actual conversion. The Reform and Conservative movements are thus being offered a ceremonial role in conversion that is so insignificant as to be meaningless.

Aware that the non-Orthodox movements weren't about to budge, the government turned to the Jewish Agency, which allocates hundreds of millions of dollars of UJA funds every year for aliya and educational projects in Israel. Controlled by American fund-raisers, and long known for bloated bureaucracy, the agency has worked hard in recent years to restructure itself - improvements now jeopardized by its blundering on the conversion issue.

In February, when the strategy of creating Jewish Studies Institutes was first suggested, Israel asked the agency to sponsor them. I objected strenuously. Why should the Agency lend its name to Israel's effort to delegitimize Reform and Conservative conversions? But the agency voted to offer its sponsorship; the Israeli government now points to the agency action as indicative of world Jewry's support for its conversion position.

At the June agency meetings, the Reform and Conservative movements prepared their own resolution, which in effect called on the agency to oppose any conversion legislation, including the newest version, and to recognize their right to battle for equality in the courts. The non-Orthodox movements were optimistic, for the simple reason that most agency money is donated by Reform and Conservative Jews who are deeply troubled by the conversion issue.

But Israel's government understood what was at stake. Such a resolution would destroy the government's claim that its "compromise" position had the backing of the Jewish people. It therefore arranged for Mr. Ne'eman to address the board at the Jewish Agency immediately prior to the vote. His appearance was even kept secret from non-Orthodox movement leaders until a few hours prior the session, too late for them to demand that their own representatives to the Ne'eman Commission be invited. In his presentation, Mr. Ne'eman made his own religious sympathies clear by declaring that "there is only one Torah and no man is entitled to change it." He called for unity, making it clear that supporters of his proposals were advocates of unity while opponents were "extremists."

His speech was identical to one given two weeks before to a Reform delegation. The Reform leaders had responded with dismay, giving him a thorough grilling on the government's surrender to the chief rabbinate. By contrast, the agency's board managed not a single challenging question. Later, not one American fund-raiser offered support for the movements' position. The resolution was tabled.

It gets worse. When a Reform leader said that the agency action would inevitably have consequences in the community, a leader of UJA charged in his direction, shouting and pointing his finger, and screaming that "I will not tolerate your threats against the campaign." The only thing threatening the campaign, however, were the inexplicable actions of the agency itself.

The only explanation that can be offered for the agency's behavior is the traditional deference that it gives to government policies, and the inclination of fund-raising organizations to support calls for "unity." But the greatest threat to unity is in fact the possibility that a conversion bill will pass - and the agency's actions make this more likely.

All is not lost. Local federations, closer to the grassroots, are often willing to take positions independent of the agency's. They are more likely to understand that a partnership of synagogue and communal worlds is essential for our Jewish future, and to make the effort required to establish a covenant of mutual obligation and trust.

As for the agency, its survival depends on confronting the reality of Israel-Diaspora relations. Reform and Conservative rabbis are not going to be silent on the diversity issue, and Reform and Conservative lay people are as concerned as their rabbis. Religious equality, religious freedom, and pluralism are the most important issues on the Israel agenda right now. If Jewish organizations and leaders do not understand this, the American Jewish community will find itself new organizations and new leaders.


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