MKs backing conversion bill not welcome in Chicago, Jewish leader warns
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MKs backing conversion bill not welcome in Chicago, Jewish leader warns

After meeting PM over legislation and Western Wall about-face, Steven Nasatir says he’s done ‘being nice’ to Israeli dignitaries who ignore Diaspora Jewry’s needs

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A pro-Israel rally in downtown Chicago, on January 9, 2009. ( CC BY-SA, Josh Evnin, Flickr)
A pro-Israel rally in downtown Chicago, on January 9, 2009. ( CC BY-SA, Josh Evnin, Flickr)

Any Israeli lawmaker who supports controversial Israeli legislation putting conversion matters exclusively in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate should consider him or herself persona non grata in Chicago, the leader of the city’s Jewish community said Tuesday.

“The Federation in Chicago will not be hosting any member of Knesset that votes for this bill. None. They will not be welcome in our community,” Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund (JUF) / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, told The Times of Israel.

“We’re past the time when we’re standing and applauding and being nice because they’re members of Knesset or because they hold this position or that position. People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people — God bless ’em, but they’re not welcome in our community, period.”

On Sunday, the cabinet approved legislation critics say grants the ultra-Orthodox a de facto monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel. The bill would pull the government’s recognition of private conversions, i.e., those not conducted by the Chief Rabbinate. Also on Sunday, Israeli ministers voted to renege on their earlier commitment to significantly upgrade the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall. Both moves drew vehement criticism from Diaspora Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians across the political spectrum.

Nasatir, who has been an associate member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors since 1993, said he could only speak for Chicago, but added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if other communities would have the same perspective.”

Chicago’s Jewish community has roughly 300,000 members.

Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund (JUF) / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (courtesy)
Steven Nasatir, the president of the Jewish United Fund (JUF) / Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (courtesy)

Nasatir on Monday evening participated in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss both matters, which have roiled the US Jewish community, many of whose leaders are in Israel for the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting.

He said the hour-and-a-half long conversation, which was attended by Jerry Silverman, the head of the Jewish Federations of North America, and Jewish leaders from New York and Cleveland as well as the Jewish Agency’s Michael Siegal, was “very civil” and frank.

He refused to discuss how Netanyahu reacted to the leaders’ anger over Sunday’s cabinet decision, but confirmed reports that the prime minister said he took a more principled stance against Haredi pressure than other Israeli politicians would have, since he only suspended the Western Wall agreement and did not cancel it outright.

Netanyahu and his staff likely did not expect their actions would trigger so vociferous a response, Nasatir surmised. “They underestimated what was coming down the tracks,” he said.

“The prime minister cares about Jews of all denominations. I do believe that,” added Nasatir, who is currently in Jerusalem to attend the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting. “But this is a situation where politics became first order instead of leadership and statesmanship. I understand Israeli politics, but there are times when certain issues cross serious red lines.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the menorah on the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City on December 6, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the menorah on the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City on December 6, 2015. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

According to Haaretz, Israel’s consul in Chicago, Aviv Ezra, said initial responses to Sunday’s cabinet vote included “harsh messages of disappointment and hurt.”

According to a leaked cable the diplomat sent to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, some Chicago Jews expressed “loss of faith, deception,” the paper reported. “Some of them explained that they believe there will be possible operative consequences like donations or a political campaign,” Ezra was quoted as writing.

“Despite the seriousness of the response from the [Jewish] federations, at this stage there is no flood of responses,” he added.

The proposed conversion law, which still needs to jump several hurdles before it would take effect, is even more dangerous than the about-face on the Western Wall, Nasatir argued, as it would change or at least put in doubt the status of hundreds if not thousands of people who have already converted under rabbis the rabbinate does not accept.

“It would codify that the Chief Rabbinate would be in control of conversions in Israel. That may have been the practice, but it was never codified,” he said. “The implications of such a law would be bigger than what would be in this particular law. It’s outrageous. It’s ‘Who is a Jew?’ all over again, and then some. It just can’t happen.”

The current crisis between Israel and the Diaspora is “not just a bump in the road,” said Nasatir, who also sits on the board of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. “This is an outrage…. This is not just a little hiccup. This is big and it needs to be fixed.”

Nasatir said he not received any calls or emails from Chicago Jews seeking to cancel donations or their upcoming trips to Israel. “That doesn’t mean that I may not have some waiting for me when I come home,” he said. “This transcends dollars, this is about a relationship, this is about unity. This is about being pained by bad decisions that impact the Jewish people. When people are pained, sometimes they react in different ways. I expect that I may have to deal with some of that, but not a whole lot.”

A number of fellow Jewish leaders thought about cancelling missions to Israel, but Nasatir believes the exact opposite is needed at this juncture. “I think that ‘davka’ now is the is the time to bring more people over to Israel to again be connected and experience the land and speak out for the things we think are important.”

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