Fearing Yet Another Backlash, Netanyahu Requests Redraft of Latest Conversion Bill

Netanyahu asked for changes that would make the bill palatable to liberal-leaning Orthodox rabbis who have emerged as its fiercest critics

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 15, 2018.
Gali Tibbon/AP

Faced with mounting opposition to a new conversion bill initiated at his request, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked that it be redrafted.

He made his position clear at a meeting held several days ago with Moshe Nissim, the former justice minister who drafted the bill, and outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky.

Former justice minister Moshe Nissim, March 19, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

<< Orthodox-run authority would get total control over conversions in Israel under new bill <<

The bill drafted by Nissim would grant the Orthodox movement exclusive control over conversions in Israel and deny recognition to conversions performed by private Orthodox rabbinical courts. It recommends setting up a national conversion authority, independent of the Chief Rabbinate’s office, to oversee all conversions in Israel.

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The bill was supposed to have come up for a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation over the next few weeks. The vote is likely to be postponed until a new draft is finalized.

Netanyahu asked Nissim and Sharansky to introduce changes that would make the bill palatable to liberal-leaning Orthodox rabbis who have emerged as its fiercest critics. Many of these rabbis are part of a private initiative, known as “Giyur K’Halakha” (conversion according to Jewish law), founded two years ago. The Nissim bill, if passed into law, would kill their initiative.

Following the meeting with the prime minister, senior sources in the Jewish Agency said: “Our feeling is that the bill, in its current form, will do little to mend the growing divide between Israel and Diaspora Jewry over this issue.”

According to the Nissim bill, the prime minister would be in charge of appointing the director of the new national conversion authority. Opponents of the bill warn that the ultra-Orthodox parties are certain to demand that job for a representative of their own as part of any government coalition deal. Since the participation of ultra-Orthodox parties is usually critical to forming a coalition in Israel, they are, therefore, likely to have their wish granted.

A major bone of contention in the Nissim bill is how much power will be handed over to municipal rabbis.  Liberal Orthodox rabbis in principle support handing over more power to municipal rabbis because municipal rabbis tend to be of their own persuasion.

Nissim recommended in his draft bill that municipal rabbis be allowed to sit on the three-man rabbinical courts that oversee conversions but that the national conversion authority maintain control over the appointments, in which case the liberal rabbis would have little clout.

Rabbi David Stav, the chairman of Tzohar, an organization of rabbis that aims to make Orthodox Judaism more palatable to secular Israelis, told Haaretz that he is vehemently opposed to the bill in its current form. “It would politicize conversion and hand control over the ultra-Orthodox,” said Stav, who also serves as the municipal rabbi of Shoham, a town in central Israel. “This is not only outrageous and scandalous. It is also wrong.”

For rabbis like him to support the bill, he said, it would have to grant municipal rabbis the authority to appoint members to the rabbinical courts.

Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM, an organization that assists immigrants challenged by Israel’s religious bureaucracy, said another major failing of the bill was that it did not address the status of conversions already performed privately by the “Giyur K’Halakha” initiative. “Will they be certified? Won’t they be certified?” he asked. “This is something that affects hundreds of people.”

About 600 such conversions have been performed in recent years.

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.

Last June, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation was scheduled to vote on another 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.

Opposition to the Nissim bill extends beyond the liberal Orthodox community. A spokesperson for the Jewish Federations of North America – one of the most important Jewish organization outside Israel – told Haaretz last week that it was “not a compromise” and urged Netanyahu to have it redrafted “with real compromise in mind.”

The Reform movement also expressed opposition to the Nissim bill. Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Reform movement in Israel, called it “the latest version of conversion laws that seek to grant the Orthodox movement a monopoly in Israel.”

He said the compromise bill contained no “good tidings” for hundreds of thousands of immigrants in Israel, who are not considered Jewish according to religious law, or for Jewish communities around the world that expect Israel to treat them “equally and with respect.”