New Bill Would Reject All Israeli Conversions Performed Outside Orthodox-sanctioned State System

While Reform, Conservative conversions performed abroad would still be recognized according to the Law of Return, citizenship would be denied to such converts already in Israel

A Judaism conversion class at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv, February 2014.
Nir Keidar

A draft bill that would reject all conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system was submitted to the Knesset on Wednesday evening. 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, submitted by the Ministry of Interior, is meant to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling handed down in March 2016 that recognized private Orthodox conversions undertaken in Israel. In doing so, it 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. A hearing on this petition had been scheduled for next Tuesday, and the Ministry of Interior was supposed to have submitted its written arguments to the Supreme Court by tomorrow (Thursday). By presenting this draft bill to the Knesset at the last moment, the Ministry of Interior clearly hopes to avert another battle in the Supreme Court surrounding conversions.

Currently, Conservative and Reform conversions conducted in Israel are recognized only for the purpose of registration in the Population Registry. Unlike Jews who have undergone Conservative and Reform conversions abroad, Jews who have undergone Conservative and Reform conversions in Israel are not eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return or any of the other financial benefits this law confers on immigrants to the country.

The Reform and Conservative movements in Israel maintain that the draft bill is unconstitutional 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. 

According to the draft bill, conversions performed abroad will continue to be recognized, as they have been, for the purpose of the Law of Return. The Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent as well as to converts.

Responding to the bill, ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of converts in Israel, issued the following statement: “This is an anti-conversion bill that is meant to undermine the activities of private conversion courts.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, warned that the draft bill would aggravate already tense relations between the government of Israel and the non-Orthodox movements. “This is a bill that contradicts the Law of Return, that hurts immigrants and other communities, and that undermines the mission of the State of Israel to serve as a home to the Jewish people.” He said the Reform movement planned to act in collaboration with other Jewish groups in Israel and abroad, including the more progressive streams of Orthodoxy, to defeat the bill. He urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to “cross a red line” by approving such legislation.

Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative movement in Israel, responded to the draft bill with the following statement: “Even the cruelest monopolies become pathetic the moment before they collapse.” He speculated that it would not pass into law.