Israeli Bill Denying Citizenship to non-Orthodox Jewish Converts Stalls

Israel's relations with world Jewry have been put under strain since the bill was advanced in late June

Reformed prayer services at the egalitarian section of the Western Wall in November, 2017.
Noam Rivkin

A controversial conversion bill, which threatened to exacerbate growing tensions between Israel and world Jewry, has been put on hold for another three months. The passage of this bill into law would grant the Chief Rabbinate a complete monopoly on all conversions performed in the country.

In late June, the ministerial committee for legislation voted to advance the bill that would deny citizenship under the Law of Return to Jews converted in Israel by Conservative, Reform or privately run Orthodox rabbinical courts.

On the same day, the government walked back on its decision to create a new and expanded egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall where non-Orthodox movements would enjoy full recognition.

Israel’s relations with world Jewry have been under considerable strain ever since.

The bill, submitted to the committee by Interior Minister Arye Dery and chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was 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.

Facing pushback from world Jewish leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to a six-month freeze in the draft law, during which time an alternative would be drawn up. He appointed Moshe Nissim, a former finance and justice minister from his Likud party, for the task of putting together such a proposal.

During the six-month freeze, the Reform and Conservative movements agreed to hold off on their petition.

But Nissim was unable to draft an alternative during the time allotted him and requested a three-month extension. The request was submitted to the High Court through attorneys representing the state in the petition. The Reform and Conservative movement responded that they were opposed to giving Nissim any more time since he made no serious attempt to come up with an alternative proposal, having met with them only once.

The Reform and Conservative movements were overruled, and Nissim was granted his reprieve.

If he is unable to reach a compromise by early April, several scenarios are possible. The court could hand down a ruling in the petition and force the government’s hand – assuming it sides with the non-Orthodox movements. Alternatively, the government could decide to circumvent the court, as it did in late June, and move ahead with the draft law, bringing it up for a vote in the Knesset. Another possibility is that the government will try to stall for more time and have Nissim request another extension. 

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 or a Jewish spouse or any individual who has converted.