Netanyahu Appoints Former Justice Minister to Review Israel's Conversion Policy

Retired Likud politician Moshe Nissim is meant to help resolve the crisis with American Jewry over the controversial conversion bill

Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Dan Balilty/ AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday appointed Moshe Nissim, a retired Likud politician and former justice minister, to draft recommendations on conversion in Israel. The appointment was one of several steps agreed upon by the coalition parties in an effort to resolve the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations sparked by the ministerial approval of the controversial conversion bill in June.  

The Prime Minister's Office said that Netanyahu believes that "Moshe Nissim's rich experience will help come up with recommendations  "through a broad consensus, that strengthens unity among the Jewish people and [shows] respect for Israel's heritage."

The PMO also relayed that the appointment was made in accordance with the state's commitment to the High Court of Justice regarding the advancing of the conversion bill.

At the end of June the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to advance the bill that would deny recognition of any conversions performed in Israel outside the Orthodox state-sanctioned system. If passed into law, the 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 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 the wake of that ruling, the Reform and Conservative movements petitioned the court to require their conversions be recognized as well.

The bill, advanced by the ministers, sparked outrage among American Jewry. and eventually prompted an agreement according to which the Reform and Conservative movements would ask the High Court to postpone a ruling on the petition they filed against the bill. In return, Netanyahu would put the bill on hold and appoint a team to draft a new compromise on the issue of conversion over the next six months.

In response to Nissim’s appointment, the Reform movement in Israel lambasted the Prime Minister’s Office for its failure to consult with any of the non-Orthodox movements about Nissim's appointment, despite those groups having petitioned the High Court on the matter.

“This is a direct continuation of the government’s unilateral and aggressive conduct over the Western Wall and conversion issues, and as long as this is its modus operandi, it’s hard to see how it’s possible to advance broad consensus and unity within the Jewish people,” the Reform movement said in a statement.

“As usual, we are interested in dialogue with the Israeli government and committed to finding a way to ensure that conversion procedures in Israel won’t be abused,” the statement continued. “Nevertheless, we will continue to insist that every Jewish movement in Israel and the Diaspora be allowed to perform conversions, and that their converts be recognized by the state of the Jewish people.”

Nissim, 82, served as a minister in successive Likud governments beginning in 1977 under Menachem Begin. He left the Knesset in 1996.

In 2015, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked appointed Nissim to the committee that selects a new attorney general.  He also served on the previous committee which selected Yehuda Weinstein.