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Have We Overreacted?

Rotem bill, currently frozen, provoked strong opposition stateside

Marc Tracy
July 23, 2010

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.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.