No one has ever denied that Aharon Barak is both very smart and capable of demonstrating great patience in reaching his goals. He is willing to move step-by-inexorable-step, rather than trying to gain his objective in one fell swoop and running the risk of setting off a counterattack in the Knesset.
Few doubt that one of Barak’s long-range goals is the equalization of the so-called three streams of Judaism in Israeli life and law, particularly in the area of conversion. Well over a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Suzanne Miller, a Reform "convert" from the United States, that "conversions" by the heterodox movements abroad entitle one to full rights under the Law of Return. Left open was the status of heterodox conversions in Israel, which would directly challenge the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive authority over conversion.
In November 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that residents of Israel, who were listed on the Population Registry as non-Jews, and who underwent heterodox conversions abroad after studying with the heterodox movements in Israel, must be registered as Jews on the population ministry. Left open was their status under the Law of Return (which was not relevant to most of the petitioners because they were already citizens under the Law of Citizenship). Also left open was the status of heterodox conversions performed in Israel.
The issue of the eligibility of such converts for all rights under the Law of Return was subsequently raised in a petition brought by the Israel Religious Action Center headed by Reform leader Uri Regev on behalf of 16 petitioners who had begun studying for conversion while in Israel as tourists or workers. Some of the petitioners converted subsequently under heterodox auspicies abroad and some in Israel. In response to the petition, the State of Israel argued that the Law of Return was only applicable to those who are already Jewish at the time they seek to make aliyah, and not to those who first come to Israel and subsequently seek to convert.
A panel of 11 justices rejected the State’s argument on Sunday by a 7-4 vote, with Court President Barak writing the majority opinion. Yet despite rejecting the sole argument raised by the State, Justice Barak did not grant a complete victory to the Reform movement. Instead he granted the state 45 days to respond on the issue of whether the heterodox conversions of the petitioners should be considered valid for purposes of the Law of Return.
Ironically, the only complete and immediate victors from Sunday’s decision were those who have undergone conversion through the Chief Rabbinate, and whom the Interior Ministry had refused to grant rights under the Law of Return because they were in Israel before they began their conversion process.
We can be fairly certain, however, that it was not the fate of legitimate Orthodox converts that explained the jubilation of Uri Regev on Sunday. The previous Interior Minister Natan Sharansky had taken the position that only conversions under the auspicies of the Chief Rabbinate should be sufficient under the Law of Return for those who converted after taking up residency in Israel. Regev, and one assumes Barak, are counting on the fact that the current Interior Minister, Shinui’s Avraham Poraz, who has always held aloft the banner of religious pluralism, will raise no objections to the validity of heterodox conversions performed either in Israel or abroad. (Only a coalition crisis with the National Religious Party could possibly force Poraz to object.) If so, full recognition of heterodox conversions performed in Israel may be just around the corner.
ORTHODOX JEWS WILL be the most vigorous opponents of the grant of equal status to Reform and Conservative conversions, but the principal impact will be felt by secular and traditional Jews – indeed all those who bear the name "Jew" with pride – for its effect would be to drain the word "Jew" of all meaning.
Two "rabbis" belonging to diametrically opposed religions – what one (Torah Judaism) forbids, the other (Reform) permits (actually the latter permits anything so long as one is sincere); what one classifies as an abomination, the other celebrates – cannot logically both be converting people to Judaism. And if both of their religions can be called Judaism, why not open up the field to anyone with a printing press to print certificates of conversion. Let Humanistic Judaism, which denies the existence of a Creator, also do conversions, or allow Yossi Beilin’s so-called "secular conversions." Indeed there was language in Barak’s most recent opinion, in which he describes the Law of Return as designed for all those who wish to join the people of Israel in the State of Israel, which is identical to Beilin’s description of secular conversion.
Even limiting the right to convert to the Reform and Conservative movements would render the term "Jew" standardless. And that which cannot be defined loses all meaning. The Reform movement has no uniform conversion standards and recognizes the autonomy of every rabbi to set his own (just as it recognizes the autonomy of every individual to determine his "mitzvos").
That includes hundreds of "rabbis" who openly advertise their conversion services for a fee in the Yellow Pages. And it includes Rabbi Everett Gendler, who co-officiated with a Baptist minister, at the marriage of his daughter to the latter’s son, and the thousands of other Reform rabbis who perform intermarriages.
Without rules, one cannot play chess. And by the same token, an identity that can mean anything loses all power to bind. David Ben-Gurion envisioned Jewish identity as the glue that would bind Jews from over 100 countries and as the link between the modern state and the more than 3,000 years of Jewish history. That vision lies in the dustbin today.
Ultimately, the state of Israel will be the biggest loser from further erosion of the basis of national unity. Without a sense of purpose in living here, a sense of being part of a historical continuum, it will be increasingly difficult for Israelis to muster the resolve to remain. Already thousands of those with the resources to leave the country have done so. Nearly one out of five Israeli citizens lives abroad. Almost a quarter of high school students expect to live their lives elsewhere, and half of them say they do not feel part of Israel or her problems.
There is a red line running from Yitzchak Rabin’s grudging support for the Oslo Accords to Ehud Barak’s Camp David proposals to Ariel Sharon’s Gaza First Initiative. These battle-hardened ex-soldiers never deceived themselves that their initiatives would make Israel safer. Rather they were driven by the need to hold out a ray of hope, however illusory, to a population they feared would just throw in the towel.
In this situation, weakening the sources of Jewish national identity is not only stupid, it is close to suicidal.