The Current Debate about Israeli Legislation on
One activity, Three options
1. Use newsclips or news articles if participants need an introduction to the issue. Ideally - if participants are aware of the current debate - proceed immediately by asking what has happened.
2. Divide into four groups, or multiples of four groups. Each group moves into a separate area and receives one card with a term to define as it is understood in the Diaspora and in Israel. The definitions should be written down in a few sentences underneath the term.
The four terms on the cards are:
Note on the definitions: the first 3 are streams of contemporary Judaism; the fourth can be either a non-stream or can be extended to refer to the movement for Secular, Humanistic Judaism.
Participants' key cards can be found by clicking on each card shape.
Moderators' data on intermarriage [outmarriage] can be found in the following pages:
Marry Within The Faith
Encouraging Trends Among Conservative Synagogue Members
3. Regroup: have each group read out its definition and state whether the term is understood differently in Israel and the Diaspora. When all the definitions have been presented, ask for any additional clarifications and aim for a group consensus on how we understand these terms, using key cards. You may also explore how each stream sees themselves and how we see them if you have time!
4. Proceed to one of the 3 activity options below.
Last year, the Israel Supreme Court ruled that conversions to Judaism [see Bagatz versus Badatz] - whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox - were equally valid whether performed in Israel or abroad, and that converts were to be registered as of the Jewish community by the Ministry of the Interior unless Knesset legislation provided otherwise.
The country went to election in May and many parties, including Yisrael BeAliyah, supported the call for acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel [as opposed to conversions abroad, which have been accepted for some time].
Now the Knesset has passed the first reading of a Bill to authorize only Orthodox conversions in Israel, with a comfortable majority. Yisrael BeAliyah prefers to find rabbinical solutions rather than make waves; both major parties are split over the issue and major figures absented themselves from the plenum during the vote. Shas and other ultra-orthodox coalition partners threatened to leave the government if the Bill was not passed yesterday. In actual fact, with the passing of the Bill to the Knesset Law Committee, it may well never emerge for a second reading - and this may all turn out to be a storm in a teacup, however genuine the controversy, and irrespective of the real need to address the issues involved.
Avraham Burg, Chairman of the Zionist Executive and the Jewish Agency, expressed his deep concern over the impact of such legislation: not only on the Israeli public and many applicants for conversion from the CIS, but also on the ties and dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora communities, particularly in the US where the non-orthodox streams of Judaism represent the majority - and consequently Israel's backbone of support, whether affective, financial or political.
Will there be a crisis?
The majority expression of Jewish life in the United States, in particular, is within the Reform movement; its members constitute the majority across the spectrum of Jewish life and enjoy a democratic autonomy in issues of membership, conversion, education, community life.
They, together with the Conservative movement, have a considerable following in Israel and wish to welcome applicants for conversion under their own auspices. As the 1950 Law of Return stands, this should not present a problem - except that the power to make decisions on personal status is enshrined in law as the role of the Israel Chief Rabbinate.
Is this anti-democratic or even unconstitutional?
Traditionally, a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother or a person who has converted; the Reform movement accept patrilineal inheritance, but the Israeli Law of Return does not.
Meanwhile, the entire Jewish world is devastated at the inroads on the community made by outmarriage. The majority of children from inter- or out-marriages in the Diaspora do not grow up as Jewish, and of those who do, few receive a Jewish education. Conversion is a compelling argument.
Orthodox Judaism hesitates to convert applicants, particularly outside Israel. In Israel, the policy is slightly more flexible for serious applicants, but the regulations are stringent, the process demanding...
For the US-based Reform movement, conversion has long represented the dream of inclusion of new participation and a resolution of the immediate problem for a mixed couple.
What are the purpose and nature of conversion?
Option I: Structured Discussion
This format will be suitable for college students and adults, as well as informal settings with older teenagers.
- Bring different articles or newsclips for review.
- Ask participants to suggest which are the major issues both internally and at a broader level.
- Ask if and how they feel affected by the current debate in Israel.
- If necessary, add some more background information and even some more provocative questions from the text provided.
- Select one internal and one broader issue for each discussion group of 5 participants and allow these small groups time to debate them and note down main points.
- Bring everyone together, listen to summaries and allow questions, comments.
- Ask participants believe this is a crisis situation; provide more paper and have the small groups follow the guide for solution-seeking.
- Bring everyone together, review the findings and recommendations.
- Decide on joint action.
Option II: Values Clarification
This is for moderators experienced in this system who wish participants to draw individual conclusions on the Israeli and general issues, from which they lead into personal and group implications. We therefore provide only a guide to the exercise sequence. It is also suitable for senior high school age.
- Begin with news articles or newsclips, as above. Ask for reactions, but do not deepen discussion.
- The Jewishness of the State of Israel - written exercise for oral review in bipolar options in how we see the major characteristics of the State of Israel [secular/orthodox; open to all/for Jewish immigration; democratic/theocratic].
- Review: are these options exclusive or is there a continuum? How would we like the State of Israel to be?
- Israel-Diaspora relations - individual visual exercise to be hung around the room: diagramatic options of the Diaspora's closeness or distance from Israel [and vice versa!], using clusters. Participants designate which cluster is Israel and which cluster represents their national community. [Alternative for those moderators with a grounding in psychology is to use group dynamic exercise based on sun/satellites.]
- Review: how similar or different were the cluster choices? Why did we make them? What do they imply about where we see Israel in relation to ourselves and vice versa?
- Israel-Diaspora relations - small group written exercise phrased as options and followed by discussion. 2 questions with multiple choice:
- Where is the center / where is the periphery? [Israel - the Diaspora - neither - both equal]
- What is the level and direction of the partnership between Israel and the Diaspora? [Israel dominates; Diaspora dominates; equal and bidirectional; there is none.]
- The pluralism of Judaism? - vote on whether Judaism is pluralistic and then on whether it should be; discuss the disparity and provide background from the text [or other sources] on both conversion and Jewish demography. Review.
- Follow questions 6 & 7 to their logical conclusion and ask whether Israel is entitled to legislate on its citizens' status; then whether, under the letter of the Basic Law - the Law of Return [mentioned in the text provided], you feel it can define which type of conversion is valid, [i.e.without amending the Basic Law as a whole.]
- Conflicts of interest: Have participants come up with the two major conflicts of interest and evaluate them for their importance. If they are indecisive, ask where there is a conflict at the level of Jewish interpretation and where there is one which impacts on Diaspora-Israel relations.
The response should be directed towards:
- Orthodox definition of conversion versus that under the Law of Return.
- Israel's need for Diaspora support versus her independent right to legislate.
Ask participants to state where they stand on each conflict and why!
- Procede to resolution scenarios as in Option I.
Option III: Formal Debate
The issues mentioned below can be provided as a guideline for preparation, as can the background text, news articles and newsclips.
There are several possibilities which will open a broad discussion of all the issues in a formal debate:This house believes that:
- Israel has/does not have a/the right to legislate on all matters of personal status, irrespective of the Diaspora.
- All forms of conversion to Judaism are/are not valid and should/should not be accepted equally in Israel and the Diaspora.
- The Diaspora should/should not intervene in the Israeli legislative process.
- The Diaspora should/should not support Israel if it passes a new law disallowing/recognizing the validity of all forms of conversion.
- Israel and the Diaspora have come to a parting of the ways.
Background Discussion: The Issues
- Who is empowered to decide issues of personal status in Israel?
- Who should be empowered to decide on conversion in Israel?
- Should there be a standard for conversion in Israel?
- How does the Israeli public feel about this?
- Why and how is religion tied into the state in Israel, rather than separated from it?
- Should we categorize all orthodoxy as ultra-orthodox, coercionist...?
- Should religion be separated from state in Israel?
- What is - and what should be - the Jewish nature of the state of Israel?
- Is or can Judaism be pluralistic? or monopolistic?
- Is there / can there be a difference between what is accepted Jewish practice and principle by the different streams of Judaism?
- How does the proposed legislation concern Diaspora Jewry?
- How might it affect relations between Israel and the Diaspora?
- What is or should be the say of Diaspora Jewry in Israel's internal affairs, on an issue of relevance to the Diaspora?
- Which are the major irreconcilable issues?
- Which are the major areas of consensus or compromise?
- What are the possible scenarios for an internal crisis and how might they be resolved?
- What are the possible scenarios for a crisis between Israel and the Diaspora and what solutions would you recommend?