Feminist activist lambasts conversion bill in S.F. talk

Calling Israel's conversion bill "an obscenity," Knesset member Naomi Chazan told San Franciscans that separation of church and state "is the only way to rescue the peace process."

"Israel is undergoing an identity crisis of monumental proportions in its 50th year," the member of the left-wing Meretz Party said during a talk last week at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The lengthy peace process and fallout from the conversion bill have exacerbated the crisis, she said in a talk titled "Conversion and Peace: Is There a Connection?"

The presentation was sponsored by the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Israel Center of the JCF.

Chazan, who is the deputy speaker for the Knesset, blasted the conversion bill, which would have solidified the Orthodox Rabbinate's longtime control over conversions in Israel.

The bill made Israel "the only country in the world, with the exception of Iran, where Jews cannot pursue their Judaism as they see fit….It cannot pass in the Knesset — partly because of you. You said, `Enough is enough.'"

Deeply concerned about the conversion bill, which was introduced into the Knesset last year by Israel's Orthodox parties, U.S. Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders began to speak out and circulate petitions against the legislation.

The conversion bill, Chazan said, "created a rift between Israel and world Jewry that I'm not sure can be repaired. The bill is not about conversion — it's about coercion…The only way to rescue the peace process is the separation between church and state."

Referring to the inaction since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, Chazan said she expects to see more delays.

"There will be a further redeployment [of troops from the West Bank] and it will be a double-digit [percentage]. It will take as long as possible. There is a government that doesn't want to see a Palestinian state side-by-side with a Jewish one," she said.

Nonetheless, she said, "a Palestinian state will be created. It will be announced by Arafat. We have one year; it's not a joke. It is in Israel's best interest that the agreement results from a negotiated process."

Israel is currently advocating a 9 percent further withdrawal of troops from the West Bank, and the United States is supporting a 13.1 percent redeployment.

She said Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has declared that in May 1999 he'll declare statehood.

"How do we negotiate that within a year? That is the challenge for Israel at 50 and for its identity. This is the midlife crisis."

While it's typical of a midlife crisis to "become very focused on the problem," Chazan said it's important to "look at your achievements and ask who you are and where you want to go."

In addition to pinpointing Israel's problems, the feminist activist also highlighted its strengths.

"There are four monumental achievements," she said. "The first is so obvious people forget to mention it. In 1998 Israel's existence is not questioned. Second, Israel was established as a homeland for the Jewish people."

The third, she said, has been the conversion of Israel from an arid desert into a postcolonial state where the average household income is over $17,000 a year. And the fourth is that "Israel has maintained a democracy" even if it is not a perfect one.