Another Nail in the Coffin for Conversion Reform in Israel as Top Court Set to Freeze Initiative

High Court approved Israeli government's request for a six-month delay to plan that would have stripped Chief Rabbinate of its power

Rabbis attending a conference on conversion in Jerusalem, July 18, 2018.
Emil Salman

An initiative aimed at reforming Israel’s controversial conversion system appeared headed back to the deep freeze on Monday.

Facing mounting opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties, the government requested and received permission from the non-Orthodox movements to put the initiative on hold for yet another six months. It was the latest indication that the government has little, if any, desire to follow through with the plan that would have stripped the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate of its power over conversions in Israel.

This six-month freeze still requires the final approval of the Supreme Court, which has withheld ruling on the matter of the legality of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel waiting to see what would happen with the initiative. It is expected to grant its approval within the next few days.

The initiative was drawn up in the form of a draft bill prepared, at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by Moshe Nissim, a former Israeli justice minister and longstanding member of the Likud. The Nissim bill called for the creation of a state-run authority, outside the auspices of the Rabbinate, that would oversee all conversions in Israel. All conversions performed by this new authority would abide by Orthodox rules.

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As soon Nissim presented the draft bill in June, and government requested that it be put it on hold for six months so as not to shake up the coalition, which relies heavily on the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties. That six-month period ended Monday.

The reason the High Court was required to intervene was that while the Nissim initiatives was being drafted, the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel had agreed to temporarily suspend a petition they had submitted demanding that conversions performed by their rabbis in Israel be recognized by the state.

File photo: Chief Rabbinate-run conversion court in Jerusalem, May 23, 2004.
Eyal Warshavsky

The non-Orthodox movements agreed on Monday to a further delay of six months on condition that about a dozen of their converts, who have been waiting years to obtain legal status in Israel, be allowed to stay in the country and receive social benefits for the next year. Their request was granted.

The Reform and Conservative movements have also expressed reservations about the Nissim initiative because it would not recognize conversions performed by their rabbis in Israel.

The legislation has drawn criticism from other fronts as well, most notably a private initiative known as “Giyur K’Halakha” (Conversion according to Jewish law), founded by a group of prominent religious Zionist rabbis who have performed more than 600 conversions in the country, about 18 percent of the total each year. Within the Orthodox movement, the Giyur K’Halakha rabbis are known to be relatively liberal and their conversion requirements are considered less stringent. Were the Nissim bill approved, all such private conversions would be outlawed.

Each year, about 1,000 conversions are undertaken in Israel outside the state-run system – roughly half Orthodox and half non-Orthodox. The overwhelming majority of these converts are citizens of Israel – most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who are not considered Jewish by religious law because they do not have a Jewish mother, as well as adopted children and children delivered by surrogate mothers.

The Nissim bill is the latest in a series of attempts in recent decades to reach a compromise on the thorny issue of conversion that would be acceptable to the majority of Jews around the world.  

In June 2017, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation was scheduled to vote on another bill that would have denied recognition of all conversions performed in Israel outside of the existing Rabbinate-sanctioned state system.

Facing backlash from Jewish leaders abroad, Netanyahu assigned Nissim with the task of drafting an alternative bill.

Reform and Conservative leaders have expressed fears that the government could return to the original conversion bill that is far more drastic than the Nissim alternative.

Responding to the decision to put the Nissim bill on hold for another six months, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said: "Our condition was a clear commitment by the government to refrain from any legislative acts during this period and to upgrade the status of our converts, in whose name we brought the petition to the High Court."

He said the Reform movement did not want to open another front between the government of Israel and world Jewry "at such a sensitive time."

"At the same time," he said, "we made clear to representatives of the government that we will not agree to any act that involves granting a monopoly on conversions to the Rabbinate, which is so hostile to our converts and creates so many difficulties for them."

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates for converts, said in response: "The decision is a wise one for all involved. It prevents conversion legislation that might decimate private conversions, on the one hand, but resolves the Jewish status issues of individuals whose civil rights were being violated, on the other. It is the best decision at this moment in time."

Farber is an active member of the Giyur K’Halakha initiative.

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said there was no reason the converts who had petitioned the Supreme Court had to wait this long to receive legal status in Israel. “The minister of interior could have decided this month, if not years, ago,” he said. “But apparently he was scared the Supreme Court might deliver a ruling that would confirm yet again that there is more than one way to be a Jew.”

Addressing the annual conference of the Jewish Federations of North America in October, Netanyahu warned participants that he did not have enough political clout to push through the Nissim bill.

"I think it’s a good compromise, but I don’t know if I have the ability to pass it," he told them.