Ministers Approve Bill Giving ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate the Monopoly on Conversions

Yisrael Beiteinu appeals the vote, potentially stalling the draft law for months; Reform movement, convert advocacy group slam yes vote and promise a fight

A conversion class at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv.
A conversion class at Beit Daniel, a Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. Nir Keidar

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted on Sunday to advance a bill that would bar government agencies from recognizing conversions to Judaism performed in Israel outside the Orthodox-sanctioned state system.

It was the day’s second major defeat for the cause of Jewish pluralism in Israel, after the cabinet suspended implementation of its agreement to create a new, permanent plaza for egalitarian prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

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

Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, the representative of Yisrael Beiteinu on the committee, was the only member to vote against the draft law. After the vote, she appealed the approval.

A bill that is approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation without an appeal typically moves directly to the Knesset, with the understanding that all legislators from parties in the governing coalition will vote for it.

But if one or more members of the ministerial committee appeals the panel’s decision, the bill instead goes first to the full cabinet for a vote.

Yisrael Beiteinu enjoys widespread support among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Around 350,000 such immigrants are not recognized as Jewish in Israel, according to religious law. If the bill is passed, it means their only option for a state-recognized conversion would be the religious courts operated by the Chief Rabbinate, which tend to be more rigid than the private conversion courts.

An appeal could delay the legislative process for many months. Opponents of the bill noted that government ministers tend to be more responsive to public pressure than Knesset members, and therefore, they took heart from the decision to appeal the vote.

The bill, submitted to the committee by Interior Minister Arye Dery, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is meant to circumvent a High Court of Justice ruling from March 2016 ordering the state to recognize conversions performed by private Orthodox conversion courts in Israel. In doing so, the court rejected the position of the Interior Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate. In the wake of that ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the court to require their conversions to be recognized as well.

The draft law does not apply to conversions performed outside Israel.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an advocacy organization for converts in Israel, called the committee’s decision “tragic.” He noted that private conversion courts, which his organization had helped set up, had helped solve many of the problems long associated with the process. “Rather than encourage this, the government has to decided to shut them all down,” he said.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, said the decision shows that “this government doesn’t only go after Reform and Conservative Jews, but against anyone who believes in moderate and welcoming Judaism and in the Zionist dream of the ingathering of the exiles.”

He said that Jews in Israel and abroad would mobilize for a “fierce fight” against the legislation.