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Orthodox-run Authority Would Get Total Control Over Conversions in Israel Under New Bill

Drafted at Netanyahu's request, new 'compromise' legislation would end private Orthodox conversions and deny immigrant benefits to Conservative and Reform Jews who convert in Israel

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Reform Jews pray at the Western Wall
Reform Jews pray at the Western WallCredit: Noam Revkin-Fenton
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A new draft bill, expected to be presented to the Israeli government within the next few weeks, would grant the Orthodox movement exclusive control over conversions in Israel and deny recognition to conversions performed by private Orthodox rabbinical courts.

If passed into law, this bill would effectively bypass the High Court of Justice, which ruled two years ago in favor of recognizing Orthodox conversions performed by private rabbinical courts.

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Based on that ruling, the Conservative and Reform movements had petitioned the High Court for recognition of their own conversions in Israel, which are also performed by private rabbinical courts. Such recognition would have made Conservative and Reform converts, not born in Israel, eligible for the same benefits as other immigrants under the Law of Return.

If passed into law, the new bill would deny Conservative and Reform converts eligibility for such benefits. But since only a handful of non-Israeli citizens convert through the Conservative and Reform movements each year, its effect is mainly symbolic.

The bill was drafted by Moshe Nissim, a former justice minister and finance minister from the Likud party tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to draft recommendations on conversion policy in Israel – a highly fraught subject – that would be acceptable to the Jewish world at large.

Last June, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation was scheduled to vote on a bill that would have denied recognition of all conversions performed in Israel outside of the existing Orthodox-sanctioned state system, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Facing a backlash from Jewish leaders abroad, Netanyahu announced a six-month suspension of the draft law, during which time an alternative would be drawn up by a special committee. Netanyahu never appointed such a committee, but in August, assigned Nissim the task of resolving the crisis.

Nissim missed his initial deadline and was given an extension of several months. He went beyond his original mandate and rather than submit a list of recommendations, he drafted a piece of legislation.

The Nissim bill is likely to draw condemnation from Jewish leaders abroad, as it differs little in substance from the original piece of legislation that provoked their anger last summer. Since his appointment in August, Nissim has met only once with representatives of the Conservative movement and the Reform movement.

Converts who go through the existing state-run conversion system -- and not all do – receive a certificate signed by the Chief Rabbinate’s office. In the draft bill, Nissim recommends that the state-run conversion system operate as an independent authority, outside of the Prime Minister’s Office, and that no other body be authorized to perform conversions in the country. As a gesture to the many Israelis opposed to the Chief Rabbinate’s Office because of its rigidity, Nissim proposes in his bill that its representatives no longer be required to sign off on conversions. At the same time, though, he proposes that the Chief Rabbinate’s Office have a say in appointments to the board of the new conversion authority.

Since the High Court ruling in March 2016 that legitimized Orthodox conversions outside the state-run system, a private initiative known as “Giyur K’Halakha” (Conversion according to Jewish law), founded by a group of prominent religious Zionist rabbis, has performed more than 600 conversions in the country (about 18 percent of the total each year). Within the Orthodox movement, the Giyur K’Halakha rabbis are known to be relatively liberal and their conversion requirements are considered less stringent.

If passed into law, the Nissim bill would effectively kill this initiative, in which close to 50 rabbis around the country are currently engaged.

Each year, about 1,000 conversions are undertaken in Israel outside the state-run system – roughly half Orthodox and half non-Orthodox. The overwhelming majority of these converts are citizens of Israel – most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who are not considered Jewish by religious law because they do not have a Jewish mother, as well as adopted children and children delivered by surrogate mothers. Only a handful of these conversions are performed each year on non-citizens of Israel.

The Nissim bill does not apply to conversions performed outside Israel, which will continue to be recognized in the country for the purpose of the Law of Return, provided that they are performed by recognized rabbis in established Jewish communities.

When Netanyahu announced his decision last summer to suspend the previous conversion bill – which had been drafted by the Ministry of Interior – in favor of a compromise, the Conservative and Reform movements agreed to put their petition to the High Court on hold. Last week, they requested that the High Court hold off no longer since they did not believe, based on their meetings with Nissim, that their cause would be served by the bill he had drafted.

Until now, it has been government decisions that guide conversion policy in Israel. Consequently, conversion policy is often challenged in court. If the Nissim bill is passed into law, its detractors note they will lose their ability to appeal, which will worsen their situation as a result.

Giyur K’Halakha, the private Orthodox initiative, operates out of the offices of ITIM, an organization that advocates on behalf of converts and other immigrants challenged by Israel’s religious democracy. Asked to comment on the new bill, Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, expressed concern that it would further strain relations between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.

“Given the tenuous relationship and increasing distancing between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, I don’t think that it would benefit the Israeli government to raise this issue now, since it would in all likelihood create greater divisions and more tensions,” he said.

The fact that the Chief Rabbinate’s Office would be less involved in conversions, under the bill, was “a step forward,” according to Farber. But several other aspects of the legislation, he said, were “completely unacceptable and do not address the existential needs of converts in Israel today.”

These included, in his view, the continued involvement of the Chief Rabbinate’s Office in conversions, in some capacity or another, and the lack of attention to “the sensitivity of the conversion issue to the world Jewish community.”

Another problem, he said, was that the bill did not address the status of hundreds of Israelis who had been converted in recent years outside the state system who might no longer be recognized as Jewish.

Before it goes for a vote in the Knesset, the bill will have to be approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.



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