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Netanyahu's coalition divided over new conversion bill

Even his coalition partners are not enthusiastic over Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s initiative for a new conversion law.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri began advancing draft legislation to strengthen the Chief Rabbinate’s grip over the conversion into Judaism process on June 18. This comes in response to the erosion of its monopoly in a series of Supreme Court rulings.

Deri’s proposed legislation presents yet another landmine facing Israel’s new unity government. It is exactly why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt to temper and delay it for the next year at least. In this early stage of his term, he is facing two main challenges: annexing West Bank settlements and reinvigorating the Israeli economy, which suffered a devastating blow as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. What Netanyahu does not need at this stage is another conflict with his coalition partners in the Blue and White party. One thing that will likely help him is a clause in the coalition agreement stating that no controversial legislation will be brought before the Knesset in the immediate future.

The question of conversion in Israel has plagued the national agenda since the 1970s. The main debate is between the Orthodox establishment, which demanded a monopoly over conversion, not only in Israel but in the rest of the world. The Chief Rabbinate remained stubborn in its refusal to recognize any other conversions, particularly when conducted by the Reform and Conservative movements. While these groups may not have much political influence in Israel, they represent a majority of American Jews.

While the Reform and Conservative movements fought a stubborn political battle to get Israel to recognize their conversions, it took the Supreme Court to expand recognition of their conversions by the Israeli authorities. The court’s ruling stated that non-Orthodox conversions conducted overseas would be recognized, when it comes to the Law of Return, which grants every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel. This means that a person converted into Judaism abroad is entitled to become an Israeli citizen when immigrating to Israel.

Nevertheless, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment tried and more often than not succeeded in preventing these converts from being listed as Jews on their official identification cards and would not let them register for marriage.

Israel’s Chief Rabbinate is the sole body legally mandated to register and officiate over marriage and divorce for the country’s Jewish population.

The conflict almost caused a diplomatic clash in June 2016, when a rabbinical court rejected conversions conducted by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the Modern Orthodox rabbi of New York’s Yeshurun Congregation. Ivanka Trump, US President Donald Trump's daughter, was converted with the help of Lookstein before she married White House senior adviser Jared Kushner. What this would mean — in theory — is she would be allowed to immigrate to Israel if she so desired and become an Israeli citizen. But she and her children would not be considered Jewish by the rabbinic establishment.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court did recognize private Orthodox conversions. This decision, which continued to gnaw away at the rabbinate’s monopoly on conversion, came in response to a suit brought by a group that offers such services. When a political crisis over the ruling erupted, Netanyahu appointed former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim, the son of a former chief rabbi, to investigate the matter. Nissim recommended a complete overhaul of the conversion system, making it more moderate and inclusive. But these recommendations stayed on paper. Nothing was changed. What ultimately determined the current situation was the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Deri is not only minister of the interior, he also heads the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas party and is considered particularly close to the prime minister. He has now decided that it is time to change the situation as it stands — with some private conversions authorized — by deciding that only conversions conducted by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate would be considered official and legal in Israel.

Advancing this proposed legislation could generate very volatile consequences, including a renewal of heated clashes between the Israeli authorities and Jewish communities and organizations in the United States. The relationship is tense as is because of the various iterations of the conversion crisis and the decision to overturn the agreement to provide Reform and Conservative Jews with an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall (as is found in Reform and Conservative congregations).

But the proposed law would also impact unofficial Orthodox conversions, including those conducted by private ultra-Orthodox religious courts. One such court that could be impacted is headed by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, a leader of the Lithuanian faction of the ultra-Orthodox sector. As a result, the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party is also opposed to Deri’s efforts to change the law. A source in the party told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The proposal places difficulties before ultra-Orthodox religious courts that could prevent the state from recognizing their authority over other civil matters. We will need to discuss it with our rabbis, but we are likely to oppose the change, unless these courts are exempted from this law.”

Another group likely to suffer as a result of this new law are more moderate and inclusive Orthodox religious courts in Israel. These have become important players in Israel’s conversion process, largely in order to resolve the problem of immigrants from Eastern Europe, many of whom are not considered Jewish according to strict interpretations of Jewish law.

Rabbi Seth Farber heads the group ITIM: The Jewish Life Information Center, and is a founder of Giyyur KaHalachah (Conversion According to Jewish Law) of the religious Zionist sector. He told Al-Monitor, “We regret that there are those who want to legislate a separatist policy, disconnected from the reality of Israel, which will end up alienating thousands of our brothers and sisters.”

The religious Zionist Yamina party, which is not part of the coalition, is divided over the issue, with moderates like Knesset member Matan Kahana opposing the law. He told Al-Monitor, “What Deri’s comments mean is complete and final deadlock over the conversion issue. The State of Israel needs an official conversion law, but it must be a law that brings resolution to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens and will not block the path to Judaism for those who desire it.”

In a conversation with Al-Monitor about this issue, a senior member of the Blue and White party said on condition of anonymity that laws like this are one reason that the party joined the coalition in the first place, adding, “Our role is to prevent further polarization and more damage to the principles of pluralism and equality, and we will do just that. No such proposed legislation will be advanced without discussing it with us first, and that will be done in the spirit of conciliation and cooperation.”

Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz intends to advance a pact on issues of religion and state, focusing on the military service for the ultra-Orthodox — he is willing to compromise with the ultra-Orthodox parties on this — conversion, public transportation on the Sabbath, and more. “Any legislation or moves pertaining to matters of religion and state will be made within the framework of the reconciliation guidelines that we will be advancing,” the senior party member party said.

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