This week, 10,000 athletes from 80 countries converged on Israel for the 20th Maccabiah Games, “the Jewish Olympics.” Those are impressive numbers compared to the 800 athletes from 19 countries who participated in Israel’s first Maccabiah Games in 1950.
It makes sense for the Jewish Olympics to take place in Israel, which Jews around the world rightly see as the home of the Jewish people. Israel promotes herself as such, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even gone as far as to suggest that he is the prime minister of the Jewish people.
So it is ironic that notwithstanding Israel’s marketing efforts, the government that Netanyahu leads has taken one action after another to send a clear message that Jews are not at all created equal. Indeed, contrary to the unifying message and pronouncements of world Jewish unity symbolized by the Maccabiah Games, the Israeli government seems to be sending a message of disunity and exclusion.
Consider the conversion bill. Haredi Orthodox parties are promoting legislation that would grant the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on conversions performed in Israel. In its current form, the bill would rob individuals who convert under Reform, Conservative and private Orthodox auspices performed in Israel of eligibility for citizenship under the Law of Return.
Last week, Netanyahu — facing an onslaught of Diaspora outrage and pressure that only got stronger after his Cabinet reneged on a deal for an egalitarian prayer area at the Western Wall — announced a six-month delay in considering the conversion bill while a team he’ll appoint comes up with recommendations. Any delay is a positive thing. But the longer such legislation is seriously considered, the more it sends the message to Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and even some Orthodox Jews that in Zion they are second-class people.
Netanyahu and his government have no problem turning to Diaspora Jews when they need them. The painful fight with former President Obama over the Iran deal is a good example. And it is unquestionably the influence and rock solid financial and political support of American Jews that helps advance Israel’s interests and objectives in the billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid that flow to Israel yearly. So, we should be welcomed with open arms in Israel, right?
Not so fast.
The new, clear message from Israel is that Diaspora Jews are kosher enough to be relied upon to act as a unified community to help and support Israel from afar, but not kosher enough to be welcomed as one people in Israel. The discordance of that message is unnerving, and its potential consequences should be of real concern.
All of that said, the Maccabiah Games belong in Israel, which is the home of the Jewish people. But we worry: Under Israel’s new exclusionary approach, what is going to happen to the Reform- or Conservative-converted Maccabiah athlete who wants to get married in Israel and make aliyah?