Greetings from Emek Refaim, the main drag in South Jerusalem. I’m camped out here for a few days doing doctoral research and meeting up with former students and current friends and colleagues.
The big news in Israeli politics right now is the showdown taking place between two parties in the governing coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. (Haaretz version here, Jerusalem Post verion here.) Yisrael Beiteinu is the party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose core constituency is Russian immigrants. The party was at the heart of the big conversion debate last summer. Its general aim in this arena has been to create ways for the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who are not recognized as Jewish according to halakha (traditional Jewish law) to become halakhically Jewish.
The current debate is over a bill submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem that would grant government recognition to conversions performed by rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces, independent of review by the Chief Rabbinate. The IDF has engaged in a Jewish education campaign for the last decade or so, and thousands of soldiers have undergone halakhic conversions as part of it. Yet the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has largely reacted to this process as it has to other conversion processes that have been taking place outside the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate: by questioning or dismissing their legitimacy.
Yisrael Beiteinu has decided to make this its fight, and has threatened to withdraw from the coalition unless the bill comes up for a vote. Shas, the sometimes pragmatic, Sephardic-Haredi party, has objected, siding with the Chief Rabbinate, and threatening to withdraw from the coalition if the bill goes through. The cabinet is set to debate the bill on Wednesday.
In talking through the situation today over coffee with a former student, it occurred to me that the debate here bears some striking parallels with the discussion in the U.S. right now about the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who serve in the army or go to college. The situation of many Russian immigrants in Israel is roughly analgous to that of illegal immigrants in the U.S.–they have grown up in Israel, speak Hebrew, and fight and die for the Israeli army. And yet they are not recognized as Jewish by the state of Israel for the purposes of marriage and burial. In both cases, the proponents of the bills are motivated by a desire for tikkun olam in its most original sense, that of rectifying an inequity in the law. And the message in both bills is the same: if you serve your country, if you become a contributing member of society, we want to find a way to include you.
What is most striking to me about this, however, is that those who promote the DREAM act in the U.S. tend to be on the left. Yet those same lefty Jews would never be caught dead in ideological bed with Avigdor Lieberman, who on foreign policy and defense issues is more hawkish than Prime Minister Netanyahu. But such is the complexity of life in Israel that the equivalent of Dick Cheney on military matters is a parallel to Ted Kennedy on this particular issue of civil rights.