Israeli Ministers Expected to Okay Bill That Would Ban Private Jewish Conversions

Two ultra-Orthodox parties are pushing the bill, to be discussed Sunday, but Yisrael Beiteinu and Reform movement blast move

File photo: An ultra-Orthodox man walks by the rabbinical court in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Ministers will discuss a bill Sunday that would require all conversions in Israel to be performed under the Chief Rabbinate’s auspices.

The bill is meant to overturn a High Court of Justice ruling from 2016, which said that granting the Rabbinate a monopoly over conversion violates fundamental rights. The bill would bar recognition of conversions done by private Orthodox rabbinical courts – which are currently considered legally valid – and also block the possibility that the state might someday recognize non-Orthodox conversions (which aren’t currently considered legally valid).

The bill is expected to be approved on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation but will likely be kept from advancing further by the Yisrael Beiteinu party, according to a senior member of the coalition.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, the party’s representative on the committee, is expected to submit an objection that would bar the coalition from voting for the draft law indefinitely, possibly leading to its withdrawal, said the source, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity.

The bill is being pushed by the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism. It was unexpectedly added to the agenda for Sunday’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting on Thursday.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will oppose the bill. “This law would create severe discrimination, and because of it we are liable to lose hundreds of thousands of members of our people, or people who are interested in converting – including those who have served or are serving in the Israel Defense Forces,” he said.

His Yisrael Beiteinu party – whose supporters are traditionally secular, Russian-speaking Israelis – added that conversion is supposed to be a means of integrating people who seek to become Jewish, not of “sowing discord between Israel and large segments of the Jewish people.”

It also said the bill violates the coalition agreements, will undermine immigration to Israel and turn back the clock “by decades.”

Lieberman is demanding the convening of the special coalition committee that was formed for the purpose of reaching agreements on issues of religion and the state before such bills are introduced.

A related tool that Yisrael Beiteinu has at its disposal is a provision in the coalition agreement requiring a consensus among the coalition parties – including the Haredi parties – for any bills touching on issues of religion and state. During its negotiations over joining the coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu insisted on the inclusion of this clause in order to block draft laws proposed by the Haredi parties in an effort to change the status quo on matters of religion and state. The provision would require all coalition parties to vote against the bill in the event it is submitted in the Knesset.

Yisrael Beiteinu could also submit its objection to the cabinet, rather than to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. In that case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be forced to settle the matter with Yisrael Beiteinu before resubmitting it to a cabinet vote. Officials in the office of Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Dery expressed confidence on Saturday night that the bill would pass, saying that it had the support of Netanyahu and the heads of the coalition parties.

In March 2016, the High Court ruled that conversions by private Orthodox rabbinical courts should be recognized for the purposes of both registering as Jewish in the Population Registry and obtaining citizenship under the Law of Return.

It was responding to a petition by people who had converted through private ultra-Orthodox conversion courts, primarily one in Bnei Brak headed by Rabbi Nissim Karelitz. All the petitioners were foreign nationals who entered Israel on a tourist visa and then, after undergoing conversion, sought to become Israeli citizens.

The ruling not only abolished the Rabbinate’s monopoly over Orthodox conversion, but also created an opening through which the court could later recognize non-Orthodox conversions.

Though one of the bill’s goals is to prevent future recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, its more immediate goal is to shut down a private conversion organization established recently by leading religious Zionist rabbis. The organization, Giyur K’Halakha (“Conversion According to Jewish Law”), is particularly known for converting children at their parents’ request.

Its founders include Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, former Shas MK Rabbi Chaim Amsellem and Rabbi David Stav, head of the moderate religious Zionist organization Tzohar.

According to the new bill’s explanatory notes, the legislation is necessary for many reasons, including the fact that converts are entitled to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return and the desire to prevent “a rift in the nation.” The text itself says conversions performed in Israel will not be valid for any legal purpose unless they are performed by the state’s official conversion system.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who heads the Israeli branch of the Reform movement, slammed the bill. “World Jewry, and most Israelis, aren’t willing to give the ultra-Orthodox establishment the authority to determine who is a Jew,” Kariv said. He added that just as has happened in the past, he believes a broad coalition of Jews worldwide will work to oppose the bill.

He also urged the Israeli government “not to abandon the most fundamental interests of the Jewish people in order to satisfy the uncontrolled appetite of the ultra-Orthodox parties.”