Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs on Friday welcomed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that the controversial conversion bill at the heart of two-pronged flare-up in Israel-Diaspora tensions would be frozen for six months, saying the Union for Reform Judaism which he heads was “supportive” of the delay but that there was a real need to prevent the bill from ever passing.
Speaking to the Times of Israel in the wake of the decision by Netanyahu, who further announced that a state-appointed committee would try to reach an “agreed-upon arrangement within our people” in those six months, Jacobs said the conversion bill “in many ways was existential” and opened up fundamental and “raw questions of who is a Jew, and also who is a rabbi.”
The freeze came after several days of outrage by some in Diaspora Jewry and accusations of “betrayal” at the hands of the Israeli government following a cabinet decision Sunday to approve legislation critics say grants the ultra-Orthodox a de facto monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel by pulling government recognition for private conversions (i.e., those not conducted by the Chief Rabbinate).
Israeli ministers also voted Sunday 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 much of the political spectrum.
Jacobs vowed to push for the Western Wall deal to be implemented, declaring, “We don’t want to pray at a second class Kotel… [or] hide in a second-rate site.”
Jacobs said some elements in the conversion bill were “not just misguided, but simply wrong: the notion that this was a security bill — that if you open conversion, people will convert illegals, and Palestinians, that it creates a back door to citizenship.”
If passed, the conversion bill would deny citizenship rights under the Law of Return to non-Israelis who convert to Judaism under private auspices in Israel. It would not affect the eligibility for citizenship of those who convert outside Israel.
“This ultra-Orthodox coalescing of religious authority is destructive to all streams of Judaism and would lead to a rift that could not be easily repaired,” Jacobs warned, adding that there was “no justification for moving the full authority for conversion to the ultra-Orthodox.”
Jacobs said Friday’s announcement of a delay was “a good and necessary development” but there was a “need to prevent the bill from coming into existence… by working on it with a professional committee. Any of the elements, in terms of protecting security, citizenship, can be taken care of.”
“Jewish unity is not Jewish unanimity,” he said. “We’re not all the same, but we’re all created in the image of God and we’re all part of the Jewish people.”
Jacobs said the conversion bill paired with the Western Wall decision brought about a feeling among liberal American groups of being “delegitimized and quite unwanted.”
“The government of Israel has to answer for our feeling of being pushed away,” he said, while promising that the recent developments were not going to “sever the bonds between the Jewish people.”
‘Jewish unity is not Jewish unanimity’
“It’s a moment to be smart and strategic about all the money we give to Israel, and to contribute to things that align with our values [and] encourage the seeds of pluralism,” said Jacobs, who canceled a planned dinner with Netanyahu this week to protest the contentious decisions.
“We’re going to be very active in North America putting pressure on places where we can bring about change,” he said, while reiterating that the movement would not sever any relationship with Israel.
Jacobs said his “love affair with this place [Israel] is about the people and the country; my argument is with the government. I’m not falling out of love.”
The Reform leader further warned that the Israeli government would do well to listen to the voices speaking loudly,” especially following the uproar over the Western Wall decision.
“We will not quiet the righteous indignation,” he promised, as a source close to the government claimed Friday that progress was also being made on the cabinet’s decision to freeze the so-called Western Wall compromise deal.
Under the now frozen deal, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism were to have had joint oversight of the pluralistic pavilion — a concession they deemed crucial and that ultra-Orthodox leaders fervently opposed.
Jacobs said the Israeli government’s move on that front — proceeding with building the permanent facility, but rejecting the promised shared oversight by non-Orthodox Jewish leaders — was “deceptive” in that “building does not meet the need or fulfill the regulation commitment to creating a genuinely open egalitarian prayer space.”
(Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky, who helped negotiate the Western Wall compromise and bitterly criticized Netanyahu’s handling of the affair this week, told The Times of Israel that the issue of oversight was the “problematic part.” The pluralistic prayer space, said Sharansky, must be “a respected place of prayer, where they don’t have to hide from anybody, and where they will be able to run their own prayer, and not have to depend on this government minister or that bureaucrat who today changes his opinions. That’s the minimum which is demanded.”)
Jacobs said the original agreement “was to open the site, to make it visible — and frankly welcoming.”
“We don’t want to pray at a second class Kotel, without the dignity that was enshrined in the government resolution,” he said, vowing that liberal groups were “not going to hide in a second-rate site” and will “not be mollified by minor modest adjustments.”
He also welcomed the fierce opposition from Jewish-American groups across the board on the issues.
“The kind of organizations and communal leaders who have stood up to say it’s hurtful for unity, for the Israel-Diaspora relationship — it’s unprecedented.” (On Sunday, in its first ever such move, the Jewish Agency called on the government to rescind its decision to freeze the Western Wall compromise.)
Jacobs said that dialogue was welcome but promised “we’re not going to sit down at some kind of endless new set of conversations leading to some agreement that will be discarded.” This was a reference to how the initial deal first came into existence in January 2016 only to be nixed a year and a half later.
“The government needs to convince everybody that there is integrity,” Jacobs said.