Rift looms over plans to change definition of 'Jewish'
Published 24/07/2010 | 05:00
Israel has been warned it risks alienating the Jewish diaspora with controversial proposals to redefine who has the right to be called a Jew.
The row has left Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, as an unwilling arbitrator in a stand-off of potentially historic proportions between American Jewish leaders and senior figures in his own coalition.
There are growing fears that the dispute could lead to a major schism in world Jewry and the prime minister is facing a choice between further isolating his country or the possible collapse of his government.
At the heart of the controversy is the age-old question of identity and the growing influence of ultra-orthodox rabbis in Israel, whose views on the subject are often seen as doctrinaire by Jews outside the country.
Matters came to a head earlier this month when a committee in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, narrowly approved legislation that could result in many foreign Jews being denied the right to settle in Israel.
The so-called 'conversion bill', which still has to be passed by a full session of the Knesset before it becomes law, has caused fury in the US.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a million Russian-speaking immigrants have moved to Israel. But, because they either had only a Jewish father or married into the faith, almost 350,000 of them are not recognised as Jews in their adopted homeland.
That group includes 90,000 who were born in Israel.
According to Orthodox doctrine, only those whose mothers are Jewish can be officially classed as Jews.
Rectifying this anomaly is vital to the future of Israel, according to Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister and a senior figure in the Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose core constituency is Russian-speaking.
"The 350,000 immigrants who are not considered Jews are a national strategic problem that must be solved now, because in another generation or two it could tear our society apart," he said.
Yisrael Beiteinu's original proposals were designed to make it easier for Russian-speakers to become Jewish by allowing a sympathetic local rabbi to convert them. But to have any hope of forcing the bill through the Knesset, it had to make a major concession to religious parties by proposing that the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate would have ultimate authority on conversions.
The bill prompted a storm of protest in the US, where more than 80pc of Jews are non-Orthodox. American Jewish leaders fear that the bill could mean conversions performed by American rabbis are not recognised in Israel -- meaning that new converts might not be allowed to live in the country.
Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now the powerful chairman of Israel's Jewish Agency, warned many foreign Jews could end up feeling like second-class members of the faith. "By recognising Orthodox conversions and not the conversions of other strains of Judaism, it causes diaspora Jews to feel that they are being made illegal," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)