Bill Rejecting Israeli Conversions Performed Outside Orthodox State-sanctioned System Heads to Vote

If passed, the bill would deny citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform or privately run Orthodox rabbinical courts

A candidate for conversion sits before a special conversion court in Jerusalem.
Haaretz

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is scheduled to vote on Sunday on a draft bill that would reject all conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system. If passed into law, this bill would deny citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform or privately run Orthodox rabbinical courts.  

The bill was submitted to the committee by Interior Minister Arye Dery, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. It will be voted on as Jewish leaders from around the world – many of them opposed to such legislation – convene in Jerusalem for the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting.

If the committee votes in favor of the bill, it will move to the full Knesset with the understanding that all members of the ruling coalition will vote in favor of it passing it into law.

The bill is meant to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling handed down in March 2016 that recognized private Orthodox conversions undertaken in Israel, and in doing so, rejected the position of the Ministry of Interior and the Chief Rabbinate. Following that ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the Supreme Court to recognize their conversions as well.

The bill does not apply to conversions performed outside Israel, but Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, warned that could be the next step. “If this law is passed, it would give the Chief Rabbinate an incredible amount of power, and the next thing we know, they will start blacklisting rabbis from abroad who perform conversions,” he said.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel maintain that the new bill is unlawful since the Law of Return applies to all individuals who have converted in recognized Jewish communities and does not distinguish between conversions performed in Israel and those performed abroad or between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform conversions. The Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent as well as to converts.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the executive director of ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of converts in Israel, said the new bill presents a critical test for Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver and her often-repeated commitment to facilitate conversions for immigrants not recognized in Israel as Jewish according to religious law.

“The eyes of immigrants are watching her to see if she will cave in to the ultra-Orthodox parties and let the immigrants down,” he said. “Not blocking this law in the ministerial committee on legislation will be the final surrender of Landver and her party and the raising of a white flag in their struggle for immigrants.” Landver, who serves on the ministerial committee, represents a faction in the ruling Likud party that enjoys support among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Approximately 350,000 such immigrants are not recognized in Israel as Jewish according to religious law.

“This new bill, together with the outrageous demand that the government scrap the Kotel deal, are two fingers stuck simultaneously into the eyes of Diaspora Jewry,” said Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel. “Only a short-sighted government seeks to blind the Jewish people.”

As Haaretz reported earlier this week, the state is expected to notify the Supreme Court on Sunday of its decision to suspend its agreement to build a new egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall. The agreement was approved in the cabinet in January 2016 but never implemented because of opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties.