Sunday, May 25, 2008

Turning their backs on the people of Israel

By Shahar Ilan

If anyone thought that religious Zionism should continue having anything to do with the Chief Rabbinate or the rabbinic courts, along came the ousting of Rabbi Haim Druckman from his position as head of the Conversion Authority to show religious Zionists their new place: beyond the pale. The religious establishment's new masters, the ultra-Orthodox, do not care about the Zionist farmers who need rabbinic permission to sell their produce during the shmita (sabbatical) year, about the religious women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, or about those few Russian immigrants who think it is so important to be Jewish that they are willing to meet the difficult conditions imposed by Rabbi Druckman. Their policy has become one of turning their backs on the people of Israel.

Religious Zionists will soon need to do some difficult soul-searching and answer some tough questions: Will they accept a situation in which the Chief Rabbinate views their rabbis as second-class? Will the religious Zionist community establish an alternative chief rabbinate, which would involve violating several laws passed to bolster the current rabbinate when it was under religious Zionist control? Will religious Zionism renew its historic alliance with secular Zionism? Will it set up an independent conversion system that will ignore the demands of the ultra-Orthodox and finally carry out a mass conversion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union?

Secular Israelis also have to do some soul-searching, but of a completely different sort. The ousting of Rabbi Druckman, along with the Rabbinical Court of Appeals ruling invalidating the conversions he conducted, clearly show that it is impossible to leave the keys to the Jewish people in the hands of the aloof ultra-Orthodox any longer. For 18 years, the national challenge of conversion has been placed in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinic courts, and they have failed utterly. Instead of finding every way to make it easier, to bring people closer, to encourage, they scattered obstacles and fences, they dug ditches. When Rabbi Druckman tried to make it a little bit easier, they waged a campaign of delegitimization that ended in his removal.

The conclusion is clear: Judaism is too serious a matter to be left in the Chief Rabbinate's hands. We must divest the rabbinate of the task of integrating immigrants with no religion into the Jewish people.

Ultimately, secularism is the largest stream of Judaism, both in Israel and worldwide. While 51 percent of Israeli Jews are secular, only 19 percent consider themselves religious or ultra-Orthodox, according to the Guttman Center, which surveys Israeli public opinion. It it is inconceivable for a large population to leave the question of how to be Jewish in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox. It is inconceivable that a secular non-Jew who wants with all his might to be a secular Jew should have to disguise himself as religious.

Organizations that promote secular Judaism are hesitant to pick up the hot potato of secular conversion. But the case of Rabbi Druckman must put an end to this hesitation.

There are several options for secular conversion. One would involve a public announcement by secular Judaism groups saying that they see all immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are classified as not having any religion as full-blown Jews. Of course, this would apply only to those who want to be considered Jews. But in order for such a statement to have value, it would need to have as much support as possible: from secular Judaism organizations, intellectuals, political leaders, opinion makers and former army officers - who have commanded so many people with no religion, but so few ultra-Orthodox.

It might be necessary to bolster this with a "Jews just like us" campaign. Secular Judaism groups might need to give the immigrants certificates of Judaism so that the Interior Ministry would have to register them. Such a move would also need to be accompanied by the passage of a civil unions law, to allow Israelis to dispense with rabbinate-controlled marriages by creating a form of partnership that the rabbinate would have nothing to do with.

Another possibility would be to hold private secular conversion ceremonies, but only for those who have taken Judaism courses. This would more closely resemble the accepted conversion process, and would therefore generate less opposition. The disadvantage is that a huge budget would be needed to cope with the challenge of mass conversion, and the chances of the funds coming from the state are very slim.

And here is another option: focusing the secular conversion process on teens. At the age of 13, immigrants who so desire would be able to have a secular bar-mitzvah ceremony. At 18, they would be able to confirm their Jewishness. This would imbue a large segment of the next generation of immigrants currently considered to have no religion with a sense of belonging - a sense that they are welcome in Israel.

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