Netanyahu on collision course with US Jews over conversion to Judaism

A special commission is proposing to limit the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s involvement in conversion to Judaism, establishing a special authority for this issue.

al-monitor Members from Jewish religious parties attend a session of the Knesset to debate a bill that, if passed into law, would allow the state to certify the validity of all conversions to Judaism conducted by the Israeli army without the Chief Rabbinate's approval, Jerusalem, Dec. 15, 2010. Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

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conservative judaism, reform judaism, western wall, american jews, ultra-orthodox, rabbinate, us jews

Apr 25, 2018

The issue of conversion to Judaism is one of the most entrenched dilemmas on religion and state in Israel and has significant bearing on world Jewry. A committee appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to study the topic is now recommending a new conversion law that is rather unlikely to please all streams of Judaism.

In 2016, the High Court recognized conversions conducted by private conversion institutes in Israel for the purpose of the Law of Return (offering all Jews the right to become Israeli citizens). The Chief Rabbinate, which is interested in keeping its monopoly on conversion, was not happy with this ruling. In light of this legal precedent, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party hastened to advance a stringent new law proposal on conversion, which would grant exclusive authority over conversion to the Chief Rabbinate. In July 2017, the bill was passed in the ministerial committee on legislation, despite the objection of Yisrael Beitenu. It caused a crisis with American Jewry, as the Chief Rabbinate rejects in principle conversions by progressive Judaism institutes. At the same time, the Israeli Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the High Court.

Jewish billionaire Charles Bronfman, one of the main donors to the Birthright project, which offers Jewish youths free visits to Israel, then wrote a sharp letter to Netanyahu. He warned that the government’s decisions on the conversion law and the Western Wall (freezing plans for dedicating a section of the wall to egalitarian prayer services) could hurt registration to the project among the young American generation that participates in it. “We who love Israel and the Jewish People are left to ponder our relationship with Israel — and particularly with the coalition you lead. … These two new issues will ensure that our youth will be more and more estranged from the great Nation that we adore,” Bronfman wrote.

In light of the political crisis in Israel and US pressure, Netanyahu reached a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox parties and the petitioners to the High Court to postpone the debate on the conversion law for six months and to freeze the petitions. In August 2017, Netanyahu appointed Moshe Nissim, the former minister of justice from the Likud, to head a committee that would formulate recommendations on the issue of conversion.

The committee met with representatives of all the streams of Judaism, as well as the chief rabbis and the heads of private conversion institutes. It based its work, among other things, on a similar committee appointed by the government in 1997, headed by professor Yaakov Neeman. That committee determined then that there should be a uniform national conversion process, which would be recognized by all Jews. In this framework, it recommended the establishment of an institute for the study of Judaism that would be responsible for the issue of conversion, to be run jointly by all streams of Judaism, including the Reform and Conservative movements. The Neeman committee also recommended that conversion processes be conducted in special conversion courts that would be recognized by all streams of Judaism.

A government conversion institute was indeed established according to the recommendation of the Neeman committee, but the Reform and Conservative movements were not allowed any role in it. The Orthodox rabbis remained the only ones with conversion authority in Israel.

The Netanyahu-appointed committee headed by Moshe Nissim has recently submitted its recommendations, which include an alternative bill to the conversion law and will be brought for debate in the ministerial committee for legislation. According to the proposed bill, a new public agency for conversion would be established that would have exclusive authority to convert and would recognize conversions conducted by rabbis from “recognized Jewish communities,” that is, it would authorize, by Jewish law, conversions conducted by non-Orthodox streams abroad. The draft law defined a “recognized Jewish community” as “an established and active community with a common and acknowledged Jewish identity, with established frameworks of community administration, which belongs to one of the recognized streams among the world Jewish population.”

Such conversions, by the way, are already recognized by the Law of Return for the purpose of immigration to Israel and receiving citizenship, but the Chief Rabbinate and rabbinic courts do not recognize them according to their interpretation of Jewish law. This means that such converts cannot marry in Israel through the rabbinate, and if children are born to a woman convert, the rabbinate does not consider them Jews according to Jewish law.

Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti Movement (Conservative movement in Israel), told Al-Monitor, “We should be glad that the recommendations have finally been written up.” Hess said that he has the impression in his meeting with the committee that they are listening and understand well the importance and complexity of the issue. He added that he doubts very much that the committee would succeed in “squaring the circle,” in his words, since the ultra-Orthodox will try to block any real attempt to solve the conversion issue if it does not grant them full control in such a system.

The executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told Al-Monitor that the recommendations don’t represent a plan agreed on by all parties involved. Thus, in his opinion, there’s a chance of a new conversion crisis that would pit the Israeli government against the Jewish world. He said, “Any additional legislation on this sensitive topic will in the end lead to the strengthening of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment in all its circles and streams. The non-Orthodox movements can be expected to renew their petition to the High Court if they indeed aren’t allotted a role in the new conversion agency and conversions by their institutes are not recognized.”

Rabbi Seth Farber of the ITIM Institute, which provides Orthodox conversion services that are less stringent for converts, told Al-Monitor, “It’s better not to raise the topic now, since it will only intensify divisions with American Jewry.” Farber praised the smaller role of the Chief Rabbinate under this proposal, but he said that the new draft law does not solve the issue of recognition of conversions conducted by private conversion institutes in Israel.

Among the ultra-Orthodox, there’s concern mainly regarding the legal recognition of conversions conducted among non-Orthodox communities abroad. A senior ultra-Orthodox political source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that “such a proposal would create a political crisis and has no chance of passing.” In light of this statement and the fact that the government is in its last year, with other crises anticipated on the horizon (such as the enlistment law exempting the ultra-Orthodox from conscription), we can expect that the recommendations of the Nissim committee won’t ripen into an actual law anytime soon and that the conversion issue will wait for the next government.

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