Bowing to ultra-Orthodox Parties, Israeli Cabinet Nixes Conversion Reform

Decision tightens monopoly of Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox parties on Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from right, at the cabinet meeting on July 5, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from right, at the cabinet meeting on July 5, 2015. Credit: Emil Salman
Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The cabinet Sunday threw out a bill that sought to liberalize conversion procedures, tightening the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox parties on Israel’s religious bureaucracy.

The conversion reform was crafted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous government, which contained centrist party Yesh Atid. It was designed to let municipal rabbis run conversion courts.

The bill was supposed to unleash competition with the conversion courts and ease the process for hundreds of thousands of people, but the quashing Sunday had been promised to ultra-Orthodox party Shas in its coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud.

Also Sunday, the cabinet decided that the rabbinical courts — which handle about 100,000 cases a year — would be transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Religious Services Ministry, their home until 2004.

Also, the conversion administration will be restored to the Prime Minister’s Office after being run by the Religious Services Ministry for two years, when the ministry was controlled by Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party.

Itim, a group that helps Israelis navigate the religious bureaucracy, crafted the conversion bill with MK Elazar Stern (then of Hatnuah, now of Yesh Atid) and the Israel Democracy Institute. Itim harshly criticized Sunday’s move.

“The new government has deposited the keys enabling entry to the Jewish people into the hands of a group that sees value only in exilic and isolationist Judaism, not in Israel’s Jewish identity. In doing so, the government is spitting in the faces of hundreds of thousands of people without a religion who need conversion,” Itim said in a statement.

“The government is basically giving up on completing the vision of ingathering the exiles ... while setting us back 100 years. Anyone who cares about the country’s Jewish identity should address the public’s interests rather than the interests of a specific group in the Rabbinate.”

Itim said it would continue to fight for a conversion process that addressed the people’s needs. For its part, the Religious Services Ministry pledged to improve and streamline the rabbinical courts.

“There is great importance in combining all the religious services under one umbrella,” said the ministry’s director general, Oded Fluss. “It will make things easier both for marriage registrars at the religious councils and for rabbinical court judges. We understand the importance and magnitude of this responsibility.”

Though the rabbinical courts have been returned to the Religious Services Ministry, the Muslim Sharia religious courts and the Christian courts will remain with the Justice Ministry.

Last week the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the Emunah religious women’s organization to prevent the government from transferring the religious courts from the Justice Ministry. The petition had been filed by Prof. Aviad Hacohen, the dean of private law school Sha’arei Mishpat.

“Anyone who thinks logically will understand that this move is only for political purposes, with cynical use of the judicial system as a ping-pong ball,” Hacohen wrote. “It represents a serious blow to the system’s independence, to the factors that guide its activity, and to the public’s confidence.”

'A prize to the Orthodox monopoly'

The Jewish Agency today expressed “deep regrets” over the cabinet decision to roll back the reforms that would have made conversions more accessible.

"The establishment of the local courts sought to address the needs of tens of thousands of immigrants and their children who require conversion due to their desire to join the Jewish people in a more complete and recognized manner,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

"We cannot accept the fact that a matter so vital to the future of the Jewish people and to Israel's existence as a Jewish state is subject entirely to the configuration of the coalition at any given time and to government decisions adopted and then canceled after each election cycle."

In a bold challenge to the Chief Rabbinate, the Jewish Agency recently announced plans to create its own rabbinical courts, which would dispatch emissaries to Jewish communities abroad that are either unable or unwilling to perform their own Orthodox conversions.

The Chief Rabbinate has already announced that it will not cooperate with this initiative.

Sharansky said on Sunday that "in light of the apparent difficulty in promoting a solution to this problem though political channels, we must act through other means in order to preserve the state of Israel's Jewish character and continue the historic process of ingathering the exiles."

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Reform movement in Israel said in response: “The government of Israel today awarded a prize to the Orthodox monopoly, even though it’s biggest achievement, quote unquote, has been to distance the Israeli public from Jewish tradition, while constantly violating the rights of Israeli citizen for freedom of religion and equality”

Transferring control of the rabbinical conversion courts from the justice ministry to the Orthodox-controlled religious affairs ministry, he added, “gives young Israeli couples another reason to turn their back on marriages sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate and to vote with their feet and hearts against the Orthodox monopoly.”

Hiddush, a non-profit organization that advocates for religious freedom in Israel responded to the cabinet decision by calling for the elimination of the Chief Rabbinate’s office.

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