Clashes With U.S. Jewry Feared Over Conversion Reform

Draft legislation to be brought to the Knesset would assign the authority on conversions to Judaism in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate.

A new draft for a bill on conversion reform to be brought before the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee today has stirred a storm of protest among the Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in Israel and abroad.

The draft that will be brought to the Knesset for a preliminary reading, which was prepared by committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu ), would assign the authority on matters of conversion in Israel to the Chief Rabbinate. The bill is also meant to ease the process for Israeli citizens seeking to convert.

MK David Rotem
Olivier Fitussi

"This bill, in its own words, clearly demonstrates that the cat is out of the bag," the head of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told Haaretz yesterday.

"MK Rotem cut a deal with the Haredim according to which the Orthodox establishment in Israel will, for the first time, have a monopoly on conversion - in direct contravention of Supreme Court decisions and promises made by political leaders, and contrary to the interests of immigrants."

Rotem rejected the claims against him yesterday, saying, "This is not a change of the status quo on matters of conversion. Through their claims, the Reform and Conservative communities are attempting to make some sort of gain at the expense of 400,000 new immigrants."

Rotem says he intents to put forth a much milder version of the bill following the preliminary reading. He plans to carry out the alteration through a vague formulation of the bill as it currently stands.

"The bill says the Chief Rabbinate will be given responsibility on matters of conversion in Israel, but it does not say it will receive exclusive responsibility to this. Prior to the second and third reading, I intend to sit with both the Reform and Conservative [representatives] in order to incorporate them into the framework of the law," Rotem said.

He said he attempted to prevent Haredim from setting additional conditions for the conversion issue.

"The Haredi demands are constantly increasing. The more the other communities clash with the Haredim, the more opportunities the Haredim are given to react," Rotem says.

Kariv, for his part, said yesterday that "the formula Rotem is using is very vague. He is playing with words. The minute the laws says the responsibility is in the hands of the rabbinate, it will become necessary to turn to the rabbinate and consult with them every time there is a case of conversion. And this, after for 20 years our conversions abroad have been recognized in Israel by the Population Registry."

The bill that will be submitted to the Knesset this morning has four main articles. The first gives the Chief Rabbinate, for the first time, "responsibility for matters of conversion in Israel."

The second significantly eases the conversion process, enabling rabbis employed by local government to conduct conversions, thus expanding the ranks of those authorized to carry out conversions and reducing delays in the process.

The third article will allow conversion candidates with Israeli citizenship to select where they wish to undergo conversion. This will allow them to select a more "lenient" rabbi.

The fourth main article prohibits the revocation of conversions carried out by a special court unless that court revokes the conversion on the grounds that it was carried out under false pretenses.

That will end the revocation of conversions due to arbitrary decisions in recent months.

"In this way I resolve in a single law the issues of conversion, revoked conversions and marriages in Israel," Rotem told Haaretz yesterday.

"The entire country will become one conversion zone. The number of courts that will enable conversions will increase significantly. This is a historic revolution," Rotem said. He said the bill will not affect Reform and Conservative conversions carried out abroad, which will continue to be recognized by the Ministry of Interior.

Rotem and his Yisrael Beiteinu colleague Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon went to the United States recently in an attempt to to reach an agreement on the issue with the heads of Jewish communities there.

Rotem admitted that the Knesset vote today on the bill is the result of a deal with Shas that is expected to help the bill pass.

"I have been asked repeatedly when this bill will be brought to a vote. I said I'd do it the minute I have a majority in favor. I think I've succeeded," Rotem said.

When asked about the benefits to his party from the bill's passage, he said: "Yisrael Beiteinu will derive no benefit from this law. But if I want to go to heaven I will present this law at the gates."