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Have We Overreacted?

Rotem bill, currently frozen, provoked strong opposition stateside

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There’s a remarkable passage in New York Times bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s report on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deal to freeze the Rotem bill for six months:

American Jews, who are mostly politically liberal—some 80 percent voted for President Obama—have felt their attachment to Israel strained during its military operations in Lebanon and Gaza and the recent attack on a Turkish flotilla seeking to break Israel’s Gaza blockade. And since the conversion bill is being sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu, the nationalist and mostly right-wing party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, conditions were especially ripe for mistrust.

“There is increasing discomfort among American Jews with Israel,” commented Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, which is devoted to exploring Jewish issues. “This issue is a place where they can express the displeasure that they might not be willing to state on the flotilla and other political matters.”

For that reason, some here, even among those sympathetic to the Reform and Conservative movements, like Rabbi Hartman, feel that the American reaction to the Rotem bill was overly aggressive.

“They overstated this one,” he said.

In other words, the Rotem bill was a pressure valve enabling American Jews generally loathe to criticize Israel a place to let it all out, under the justification that, unlike the flotilla raid, this potential Israeli policy was (to borrow from Jeff Goldberg) a message in a bottle that reads: “Israel to Diaspora: Drop Dead.”

However, to believe that this reaction—which was undoubtedly strong; have American Jews been so galvanized over an Israel-related issue since the Second Intifada?—derives from something more than just the substance of the bill itself, you must subscribe to a view of the world wherein there are relatively observant Jews who tend to be pro-Israel (and, frankly, not liberal), and relatively non-observant Jews who tend to be indifferent to Israel (and these, I suppose, are the liberals). Statistically and anecdotally, that binary seems to be oversimplified at the very, very best.

You must also, to some extent, subscribe to the argument Bernard Avishai made (and Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz rebutted), which is that the connection between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews is overhyped and less important than many would have you believe. In the Times last Friday, editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse spoke up for that connection:

The redemptive history of the Jewish people since the Holocaust has rested on the twin pillars of a strong Israel and a strong diaspora, which have spoken to each other politically and culturally, and whose successes have mutually reinforced the confidence and capacities of the other. Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities.

In its original notion, Bronner explains, the bill “was actually aimed at making conversion easier for the 300,000 Israelis who moved here from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and are not, by Orthodox rabbinic law, considered Jewish because they come from mixed parentage.” It was only after the bill began to take real form that it became clear that its true effect would be to reside power to define Jewish identity in Israel in the hands of a small, specific, ultra-Orthodox rabbinic coterie.

Writing in response to Alana’s article, a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy confirmed that: “The impetus behind this bill, it must be stressed, was humanitarian—to facilitate the conversion of tens of thousands of Israelis, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union or their Israeli-born children,” he said. Though Netanyahu opposes the bill in its current form, he added, the prime minister “support[s] this goal.”

On the other hand, we also have what the bill’s sponsor, David Rotem, told Bronner: “They need to check the facts before they speak,” he said, referring to the bill’s non-Orthodox opponents. “They are acting like absolute idiots.”

Israel Puts Off Crisis Over Conversion Law [NYT]
Related: The Diaspora Need Not Apply [NYT]
‘Future Historians Will Invariably Wonder’ [TPM Cafe]
Earlier: The Too Jewish Jewish State

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David says:

It’s been very disappointing that American Jewish denominations have been so blind and so quiet on issues of human rights and justice in Israel and the occupied territories — while being so vocal in defense of supposed “religious pluralism” in Israel.

But religious hegemony in Israel is just another aspect of Zionism. As long as it continues to occupy another population almost its own size, continues to occupy land in two other countries — and continues to turn on its own Arab, Druze, Ethiopian, Mizrachi, civil libertarian, academic, dissident, and anti-war citizens — is it really so surprising that it will also turn on Masorti and Progressive Jews from time to time?

Israel *is* in crisis. Judaism *is* in crisis. But lobbying for religious pluralism in narrow self-interest, while ignoring systemic injustice in Israeli society and the excesses of a Judaism politically commingled with Zionism, will accomplish nothing.

The American Jewish community must rouse itself from its moral hibernation and begin speaking out for justice — for all citizens and the millions whose land it occupies.

This story is not one of overreaction so much as lack of moral clarity.

Avner Stein says:

“But religious hegemony in Israel is just another aspect of Zionism. As long as it continues to occupy another population almost its own size, continues to occupy land in two other countries — and continues to turn on its own Arab, Druze, Ethiopian, Mizrachi, civil libertarian, academic, dissident, and anti-war citizens — is it really so surprising that it will also turn on Masorti and Progressive Jews from time to time?”


Israel is the most self-hating country on the planet. While the Arab states throw bloggers in prison, Israel pays the salaries of academics who call for the BOYCOTT of that same government.

Name me another western country that would do the same.

There is inequality in every nation but the language you use is disturbing and dishonest.

Druze, Ethiopian, Mizrachi population are all afforded equal rights. The inequalities is no less different than ethnic and religious minorities in the USA.

In fact, when comparing incomes – the gap in Israel is far less than so-called enlightened racist Europe and USA.

The most impoverished group in Israel are not Arabs but Haredi Jews.

American Jews need to mind their own business. Israel is a sovereign country. If you want to have a say GO MOVE TO ISRAEL AND BECOME A CITIZEN.

I’m sure american jews would be quite offended if Israeli Jews started moaning and complaining about laws passed in the USA.

Israel is a sovereign nation, DEAL WITH IT.

David says:

Sorry, you “sovereign” Israelis can’t have it both ways. I would like to see you cut off from the American teat. Go it alone. Pay for your own defense systems. Subsidize your own haredi madrassas.

But don’t ask the American taxpayer to support you, and don’t ask American Jews to subsidize your increasingly ugly version of Zionism or your perverted version of Judaism.

Avner Stein says:

“Sorry, you “sovereign” Israelis can’t have it both ways. I would like to see you cut off from the American teat. Go it alone. Pay for your own defense systems. Subsidize your own haredi madrassas.”

No, Israelis can’t have it both ways. Sure, the Muslim receives receive 50 billion a year in free tax dollars, and give back terroris, genocide, Islamist propaganda (which has clearly infected your mind), and yet the US government has NEVER EVER condemned the muslim world for anything.

Even after 9/11 Bush was all set to say Islam is a religion is peace and prepared to sell another 20 billion in weapons to the saudis.

the chump change israel receives from the US is because israel has major security needs.

Israel could have invaded Egypt in 1967 but the US begged Israel not to, promising to guarantee its security.

In 1973, Israel was prepared to nuke the Arab states, and it took the US 2.5 weeks (and 2,300 Israeli soldiers = 100,000 US soldiers).

Israel COULD have guaranteed its own security independent of the US. The Arab states probably wouldn’t exist and the Jews would have 1/3 of the world’s oil supply.

Hey…as long as americans don’t have to subsidize ugly zionism and support peaceful arab supremacism.


R Lee Smith says:

It’s true that the opposition to the Rotem bill was not just to the Rotem bill. It was to decades of second and third class treatment of the Judaism practiced by most Jews of North America. We fully support Israel in it’s fight for survival against the Palestinians and Arabs, and we we look to Israel to support us in our fight for Judaism and against the assimilation that surrounds us. Rotem happened to come right after the arrest of Anat Hoffman for “daring” to carry a Torah. And yet to many of this we hope and pray our children, daughters and sons will have the committment to Judaism of the women of the wall. So we view the haredi control of Judiasm in Israel as the enemy of our own survival as Jews.

Barry says:

I agree about this point of Israel being profoundly Self-hating.

If a committed Islamonazi like Obama or Ellison let down their Taqiya for a minute and talked truthfully about their deep and abiding hatred for America’s Christian values, their desire to hurt white people, their genocidal designs on the American Jewish community, etc . . . , etc . . . they’d be run out of town.

In contrast – Meretz is allowed a place in the Knesset to advocate ethnic cleansing. Balad has a few Nazis there to talk up genocide against their Jewish neighbors. And nobody say’s BOO.

Israel needs to start having some self-respect. Muhammed-worshipers who advocate Genocide need to be criminal prosecuted for Crimes Against Humanity whether the Muhammedan lives in Deerborn, at the Mega Mosque that celebrates 9/11, or in Nazareth.

That the war criminal Hanin Zoabi walks free is shameful. That regular Israelis don’t practice some Flotilla-style peace activism against her and her fellow genocidal free-loaders speaks poorly of Israelis.

Marc–it’s a good question to ask but I think the results speak to the fact that American Jewish reactions were right on the money and achieved the desired result at this stage–a much needed delay and cooling off period in passing any legislation followed by a convening of the right balance of people to truly examine this issue from an Israeli and Diaspora perspective. For better or worse, Jewish culture still demands a lot of yelling and screaming in order to be heard.

Consider the fact that the native Israeli leadership of both the Masorti and the Reform movements in Israel came out against the law. Yes, American Jewry was also worried and took action, but this was not a diaspora vs. Israel event — this was a direct attack on religious pluralism in Israel. MK Rotem’s objective is worthy (to make conversion to Judaism easier for Jews from the FSU), but the legislation is poorly written and will not accomplish this.

sharon says:

Every country that is a theocracy is a failed country.
There is no science, there are no advances socially or economically unless religion
is not part of government. All of the three major religions
treat women as second class citizens. Give them a government
mandate and women would be riding on the back of the bus (oh yes,
they are doing that in Israel). All religions were created
by men to grab power and to control women. It is a major joke
that women are a distraction for men when they commune with
God. The power grab of the religious right will be the end of Israel.

The short answer is “no.” And the reason is that Israel is not, cannot be allowed to be, the sole decider on Who is a Jew. It flies in the face of Israel’s obligations uneder the Law of Return, the reason the Diaspora determined the need and created a refuge for the Jewish people.

Israel is not and, short of a divorce between state and Diaspora, cannot be allowed to decide the fate of the Diaspora.


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Have We Overreacted?

Rotem bill, currently frozen, provoked strong opposition stateside

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