The theocratic madness that is Israeli domestic politics has once again pitted the Jewish Taliban against the rest of us over the issue of who is a Jew. In an effort to break the logjam of conversions to Judaism in Israel (primarily caused by Russian immigrants who cannot prove their Jewish status), the Israeli government is seeking to both broaden the number of rabbis empowered to perform conversions and to place the whole matter of conversion (and thus who is a Jew) under the control of the Chief Rabbinate.
The fact that largely liberal nonOrthodox Diaspora Jewry is upset over this should come as no surprise. The government is siding with the Orthodox and legalizing the disenfranchisement of nonOrthodox rabbis and religious institutions. This isn’t new. The Israeli government doesn’t fund nonOrthodox Judaisms even as it does fund Orthodox Judaism (and other religions). The difference is that this pending legislation makes law out of what is at the moment mere custom. If the law passes, nonOrthodox rabbis have no hope of getting their converts recognized as Jews.
Why does this matter? Because being able to convert a person to Judaism legitimizes one’s status as an authentic rabbinic authority. Reform and Conservative rabbis want the same status as their Orthodox counterparts. Why don’t they have it? Because Israel’s parliamentary system is so broken that it requires huge coalitions in order to govern, and hence tiny parties can hold the nation hostage. This is something the smaller rightest religious parties are very good at doing.
Solutions? Here’s one: Israel could try becoming a secular democracy and follow the American ideal (albeit forever threatened by the Christian Taliban) of separating church and state. It is not for the Israeli government to determine who is a Jew, only who is an Israeli, and these are not the same thing at all.
In the US Orthodox rabbis do not recognize as Jews, those Jews converted to Judaism by nonOrthodox rabbis. So what? People who convert to Reform Judaism have no desire to be part of an Orthodox community. And, if at some point in the future they do so desire, they can convert to Orthodoxy. What is the big deal? Let the same thing happen in Israel.
Of course since 90% of Jewish Israelis are nonOrthodox, opening up the Jewish marketplace would be bad for the Orthodox monopoly, and they would fight any such change. But that is life in a true democratic secular state.
The real threat is that the more theocratic Israel becomes, the less Jews around the world will identify with her. Do I really want to support a state that has bus lines that force women to sit in the back of the bus? Do I really want to support a state that lets theocratic bullies determine who can marry whom and how? The more “Jewish” Israel becomes, the less compelling the idea of a Jewish state becomes. This is not a problem that will go away soon.