Israel to Implement Far-reaching Conversion Reforms, Following Cabinet Approval

Cabinet vote follows pressure on Netanyahu; reforms will be implemented immediately.

Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet on Sunday approved a modified version of the controversial conversion reform bill, aimed at easing the process for tens of thousands of Israelis.

The reform, which was approved by every minister except for Uri Ariel, will be implemented immediately.

The bill was brought before the cabinet following pressure by ministers Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman on Netanyahu.

It was presented Sunday jointly by Justice Minister Livni (Hatnuah) and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). Netanyahu was forced to retract his original position and accept a modified version of the bill in the cabinet after he realized that Livni’s Hatnuah, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu had enlisted a majority for a more extensive bill proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), which they were going to bring before the Knesset.

The reform will allow municipal rabbis to hold special conversion courts, which could smooth the path to conversion for tens of thousands of Israelis.

Hatnuah MK Elazar Stern called the reform “great news” for candidates for conversion, adding that “we will move as quickly as possible to implementation of the decision and to establish panels that will bring a new spirit to the thousands of candidates for conversion, especially those who have already despaired of converting.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also the chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi faction and participated in framing the formulation, said the bill would “put an end to the wave of populism on the subject,” adding that the decision was “responsible and balanced and gives our brethren undergoing conversion a helping hand, allows them to undergo the process as a positive and supportive one, and also fully fulfills halakha [Jewish religious law]. The future of the Jewish People is no matter for political wheeling and dealing of extremists on both sides, and I am glad this important proposal passed.”

Education Minister Shay Piron (Yesh Atid) said that “this is the correction of a historic injustice. The passing of the law expresses our moral obligation toward those who want to convert. This is our national obligation toward the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

A statement by the Reform Movement said “the cabinet decision is the moment of truth for religious Zionist rabbis who up to this moment have refrained from any significant action in the realm of conversion. In recent months it will become clear whether these rabbis are looking toward the entire Israeli public or toward extremists in the Orthodox establishment.” 

The original bill, which is flagship legislation for Hatnuah and was proposed by Stern, passed its first reading in the Knesset. But a few months ago, due to pressure by the ultra-Orthodox factions, the chief rabbis and Habayit Hayehudi, the prime minister decided to suspend legislation and promote a compromise bill that would pass as a more moderate cabinet decision and not a law.

Livni agreed to Netanyahu’s postponement; however, early last week, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox factions, he back-pedaled and said he would not allow the reform to be passed by the cabinet. He subsequently reversed himself again when he realized that Livni had enlisted a majority to pass the bill in the Knesset.

Bennett said prior to the vote he believed the reform would pass today by a large majority. “The compromise that I am presenting to the cabinet is the right way to allow tens of thousands of new converts to join the Jewish people,” Bennett told Haaretz. “I am glad we managed to overcome the pressure by the ultra-Orthodox factions on the prime minister and that we will be able to pass a reform that is right and good for the people of Israel,” Bennett added.

There are a number of differences between Stern’s extended bill and the proposal  brought before the cabinet Sunday. The first is the fact that the cabinet can annul the decision relatively easily through another vote in the future, for example, if the ultra-Orthodox factions demand this as a condition for joining the coalition. A law, in contrast, is much more complicated to rescind.

Another difference is that Stern’s bill does away with the need for the chief rabbi to approve a conversion carried out by a municipal rabbi. Stern’s bill also recognized Reform and Conservative conversions, which are controversial.