Knesset Passes Controversial Law Banning non-Orthodox Converts From Using Mikvehs

Law effectively circumvents High Court decision that banning Reform, Conservative converts from state-run mikvehs is discriminatory and therefore illegal.

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A mikveh in the central Israeli city Elad.Credit: Nir Keidar
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Despite strong objections from the Reform and Conservative movements, the Knesset passed a controversial bill, which bars non-Orthodox converts from using state-run mikvehs, into law Monday.

The bill was initiated by MK Moshe Gafni, a member of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Gafni submitted the legislation in an attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling from February, which found that the practice of banning non-Orthodox Jews from using state-run mikvehs, or ritual baths, as part of their conversion process, was discriminatory and, therefore, illegal.

The Supreme Court ruling came in response to an appeal by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, which represented both non-Orthodox movements.

Mikvehs in Israel operate under the auspices of the Orthodox-run religious councils, and Reform and Conservative converts are often prevented from using them when questions about their affiliation arise. All the Jewish movements require immersion in a mikveh as a final step in the conversion process.

To sweeten the blow of the new legislation, the Reform and Conservative movements had been promised by government officials that several mikvehs would be built at locations around the country exclusively for their use. This commitment, however, was not incorporated into the bill.

The Finance Ministry was supposed to have transferred 10 million shekels to the Jewish Agency to finance the construction of these mikvehs. Despite a number of appeals from Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the funding has to date never been transferred. 

Responding to the vote, Sharansky said: “This bill, which offers no solution to the non-Orthodox denominations, circumvents the ruling of the High Court of Justice. It is unfortunate that the bill passed before such a solution was ensured.”

The Conservative and Reform movements view the Mikveh Law, as it is called, as a dangerous attempt to undermine their status in Israel as well as the latest sign of capitulation by the Netanyahu government to ultra-Orthodox demands. Under pressure from his Haredi coalition partners, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also effectively reneged on his agreement to create a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall for the Conservative and Reform movements. 

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said that the Mikveh Law represented a breach of Netanyahu’s recent promise to prevent any legislation that would discriminate against the non-Orthodox movements. “This basically jeopardizes any chance for future dialogue with the non-Orthodox movements,” he warned.

Referring to the new law as a “spit in the face,” Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement, issued the following statement: “Jewish diaspora leaders are looking at us now astounded by the contempt, the condescension and the heartlessness being broadcast by the State of Israel which they so loved but which has broken their hearts.”

Reacting to the Knesset vote, Rabbi Uri Regev, chairman of Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, said: “Regretfully, the coalition partners have succumbed and agreed to this undermining of the rule of law and slap in the face to Diaspora Jewry.”