Israeli Government, Reform Jews Agree to Seek Delay to Contentious Conversion Bill

After ultra-Orthodox lawmakers stormed out of an emergency meeting on conversion bill, deal reached seeking to give sides six months to find new compromise

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem June 25, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem June 25, 2017. RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

After a meeting of the Israeli government over a contentious bill regarding Jewish conversions blew up, with ultra-Orthodox parties storming out, a temporary solution to the crisis has been found Friday.

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The government and the Reform Jewish movement on Friday agreed to ask the High Court of Justice to postpone a ruling on a petition filed by the latter against Israel's new Jewish conversion bill. This would give a team appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some six months to draft a new compromise on the contentious issue of conversion.

In the meantime, the bill, which aims to outlaw private conversions to Judaism, will be put on hold. If the High Court rejects the request, the legislation will be revived.

The bill, along with last week’s decision to suspend planning an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, has drawn backlash from Jews in America. Most U.S. Jews belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative streams and feel alienated by Israel's ultra-Orthodox authorities, who question their faith and practices.

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Earlier Friday, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers stormed out of an emergency meeting of coalition lawmakers on the conversion bill. Interior Minister Arye Dery, the head of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, was close to accepting the compromise, but was infuriated when Netanyahu asked an aide to draft a statement to the press that made it seem like the ultra-Orthodox acquiesced to the Reform movement.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni at the Western Wall, May 2016.
Emil Salman

The prime minister's bureau later agreed to rewrite the statement as Dery had asked. Netanyahu also accepted Dery's demand that if the High Court refuses to delay ruling on the Reform movement's petition, the bill will be advanced in line with previous coalition agreements. If the bill does make legislative headway, it would likely further inflame tensions between the government and non-Orthodox Jews and liberal Jewish groups already fuming at Netanyahu over the Western Wall.

Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said in response that the delay was an "important rebuke to the aggressive behavior of the ultra-Orthodox toward diaspora Jewry and the non-Orthodox streams.

"Netanyahu has realized that a line should be drawn for the aggressive conduct against Diaspora Jews and the non-Orthodox denominations.

"We will insist that the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) establishment in Israel not hold a monopoly over the field of conversion," he added. "If needed, we will not hesitate to return to court."

Kariv said he expects a similar decision to be reached with regard to the suspended plan for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

The Jewish Agency echoed his sentiment, sayin it "sincerely hopes that the spirit seen over the last two days will lead to the resolution of the issues surrounding the Western Wall."

Netanyahu, who is travelling to Strasburg for a ceremony honoring late German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said before taking off that "peace within the Jewish people is important to me.

"I really hope the High Court accepts this joint request because it will both lower tension and open a window of hope for an agreement within our people," he said.

According to a senior official, Netanyahu decided to call Friday's meeting of coalition party heads after receiving harsh messages from the heads of AIPAC on Thursday, as well as messages from other groups over the last few days.

During the meeting, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett lashed out at Netanyahu over the crisis with U.S. Jews over the Western Wall and the conversion bill.

Kahlon said that Netanyahu caught him and other party heads by surprise by advancing both decisions without discussing them first. Bennett told the prime minister that "90 percent of the crisis that emerged this week was a result of your improper conduct." He accused Netanyahu of both instigating hatred toward the ultra-Orthodox and causing a rift with Jews in the Diaspora.