Most Israelis Don’t Want Chief Rabbinate Deciding for Them Who Is a Jew, Survey Finds

Only 32 percent of Israeli Jews want to keep the Rabbinate's monopoly over conversions intact, yet more than half would not allow their child to marry a non-Jew

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau speaks at a conference in favor of the Rabbinate's monopoly on coversion, October 7, 2018.
Emil Salman

A large majority of Israeli Jews would strip the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate of its authority to determine who qualifies as Jewish in the country, according to a survey published Tuesday by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.

The survey found that only 32 percent of Israeli Jews favor preserving the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate over conversions. Under existing rules, an individual can only legally marry in Israel if he or she has been approved as Jewish by representatives of the Chief Rabbinate’s office. To be considered Jewish according to halakha (Jewish law), an individual must either have been born to a Jewish mother or converted by Orthodox rabbis approved by the Chief Rabbinate.

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Representatives of the Chief Rabbinate often prevent individuals from marrying in Israel on the grounds that their conversions are not valid.

Nearly a year ago, Moshe Nissim, a former finance and justice minister who served in several Likud governments, presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with recommendations for an overhaul of the national conversion system. It called for setting up a new authority, independent of the Chief Rabbinate, which would handle all conversions in the country. The plan has never come up for discussion in the cabinet.

Still, 36 percent of the survey respondents said they favored the idea. Another 17 percent said that private conversion courts affiliated with the different Jewish movements – Orthodox, Conservative and Reform – should be given the authority to certify conversions.

The survey also showed that a small majority of Israeli Jews – 52 percent – favor applying more lenient standards to conversions.  The findings were published a few days before the holiday of Shavuot, when the story of Ruth the Moabite – arguably the most famous convert to Judaism in history – is read.

Asked if they would agree for their child to marry a non-Jew, more than half the respondents said they would not. By contrast, the vast majority said they would be fine with a non-Jewish neighbor.