American Jews Battle Israeli Conversion Bill A delegation of Jewish leaders from the U.S. is in Israel lobbying against the proposed legislation, and they are calling the situation one of the most serious internal crises to hit the Jewish world in recent years.

American Jews Battle Israeli Conversion Bill

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We go to Israel now, where there's a new battle that revolves around an age-old question: Who is Jewish? The dispute pits the influential American Jewish community against some of the most powerful religious figures in Israel.

A delegation of U.S. Jewish leaders is lobbying against a law currently working its way through the Israeli parliament. That measure would increase the already considerable power that Israel's orthodox Jewish establishment has over conversions to Judaism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently that the dispute could, quote, "tear apart the Jewish people."

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: America is only a close second to Israel in terms of how many Jews live there. And America's Jewish community is vital in terms of the political, financial and moral support it lends the Jewish state. So when a senior Jewish delegation representing some of the most powerful Jewish groups comes from the U.S. to Jerusalem for an emergency meeting, it's serious.

Rabbi DANIEL ALLEN (Director, Association of Reform Zionists of America): We do not want to see a schism among the Jews of the United States and Israel. And this will say to the Jews of the United States, that they don't have a serious place in this country, and that's unacceptable to us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rabbi Daniel Allen is the director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He says American Jewish groups are in crisis mode.

Rabbi ALLEN: This would be an affirmative act of the Knesset to create a second class of Jewry. And therefore it is a much more important moment in time in terms of the sweep of Jewish history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a fundamental divide between Jews in the U.S. and Jews in Israel. Most American Jews belong to the more liberal branches of Judaism -the Reform or Conservative movements. In Israel the Orthodox are in almost total control of Jewish life.

American Jews are upset that the conversion bill making its way through the Knesset will, for the first time, give sole control over conversions to Israel's chief rabbinate, which is dominated by Orthodox Jews.

At the moment in Israel, conversions performed outside the country by the more liberal branches of Judaism are honored. American Jews fear, that if power is handed over to the rabbinate, that could change.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman is the dean of Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi NAAMAH KELMAN (Dean, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion): Never in the history of the state of Israel has there been a law to determine the status of a convert.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The sponsor of the bill is member of the Knesset, David Rotem. He represents hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many of them from the former Soviet Union who are trying to formally convert to Judaism here.

The conversion process in Israel can sometimes take years, cost thousands of dollars and ultimately lead nowhere. Some conversions have been overturned by competing rabbis from the Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox communities.

Rotem says the point of his bill is to make the conversion process easier by decentralizing it. If the bill passes, municipal rabbis will be allowed to approve conversions under the auspices of the chief rabbinate.

Mr. DAVID ROTEM (Politician, Knesset Member): I am trying to get out some parts from the rabbinical courts and to give it to the municipality court - rabbis who are much more friendly to people who want to convert.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the many problems with the conversion process in Israel must be addressed to simplify the system.

Mr. ROTEM: We are sitting on a ticking bomb. We have got 400,000 new immigrants who came from the former Russian union who are not recognized as Jews according to the Jewish law. They are serving in the Israeli army, and they are being taken as hostages, today, for the Reform and Conservative movements who are against this law, with no reason.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rotem said American Jews are using their power to interfere in internal Israeli affairs.

Mr. ROTEM: I am willing to talk to them. I am not willing to be a hostage. I am not willing to be threatened, and I'm not willing to be blackmailed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The bill has already passed through committee, and the next step is for it to be voted on in the Knesset. It's not clear if that will happen before or after the legislative body disbands for summer recess at the end of this week.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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