Israeli Government 'Refusing to Uphold' New Conversion Law, Critics Charge

The reform, passed in November, is meant to allow municipal rabbis to hold special courts that would ease conversion to Judaism; but none of the rabbis who applied received answers so far.

A Judaism conversion class at the Beit Daniel Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv, February 2014.
Nir Keidar

The Israeli national elections may be more than a month away, but the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment is already flexing their political muscles in anticipation of the major parties seeking their support in future efforts to build a coalition.

This is what critics say lies behind the refusal of the Ministry of Religious Affairs to implement a controversial and hard-fought cabinet decision taken in November to reform the process of converting to Judaism. The reform was intended allow municipal rabbis to hold special conversion courts, which could smooth the path to conversion for tens of thousands of Israelis by breaking the monopoly of a handful of rabbinic courts run by the Chief Rabbinate. 

“Unfortunately, the ministry is refusing to uphold the law,” charged Rabbi Seth Farber, director of the non-profit organization ITIM, which assists Israelis who are having difficulty navigating the religious authorities in Israel. Farber said he believes that political considerations lie behind the reluctance of the government to force compliance with the cabinet decision. 

The government, he said, is essentially allowing the Religious Services Ministry, under pressure from the Chief Rabbinate, to flout the law. 

Israeli television’s Channel 2 News reported Wednesday that the reform had essentially been “buried” and the Chief Rabbinate - which strongly opposed the decentralization of conversions - had appointed a private legal committee to look into the “validity” of the November cabinet decision and determined it was invalid, sending the issue back to the government. The Channel 2 report said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition was uninterested in re-opening debate on the matter before the upcoming elections. 

It was in early November that the government formally approved changes that would give municipal rabbis the ability to create their own local conversion courts and perform conversions with permission from the national religious authorities, which was supposed to be granted within thirty days.

The non-profit group ITIM petitioned the conversion authority on Wednesday, protesting the fact that two rabbis who asked the conversion authority in early December to approve their courts - have not received responses, and so, de facto, the law has never been implemented. ITIM said the two rabbis who had not received answers were Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Chaim Amsalem. 

Farber, called the failure to implement the reforms a “pocket veto” by the government. “None of the rabbis who submitted requests to create courts have received answers. The cabinet decision was clear: municipal rabbis can perform conversions. Unfortunately, the ministry is refusing to uphold the law.” He added that “Since the cabinet decision, ITIM Assistance Center has received tens of requests from potential converts awaiting the opening of municipal conversion courts. “ The ITIM letter demanded that the Religious Services ministry make public the protocols of the hearings related to the cabinet decision. Ministry spokesmen could not be reached for a reaction to ITIM’s charges. 

The reform was presented to the cabinet in November by then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi). At the time, Netanyahu was pressured into approving it after he was told that a Knesset majority existed to pass a more extensive bill which would introduced more far-reaching reforms, all opposed vigorously by the ultra-Orthodox parties.

When it was passed, Bennett celebrated, saying the bill was “responsible and balanced and gives our brethren undergoing conversion a helping hand, allows them to undergo the process as a positive and supportive one, and also fully fulfills halakha [Jewish religious law]. The future of the Jewish People is no matter for political wheeling and dealing of extremists on both sides, and I am glad this important proposal passed.”

The move was also hailed by Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, as being helpful in stemming the tide of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who are leaving the Israel, by allowing more liberal rabbis to participate in the conversion process through the new reform. “There is no doubt that the current restrictions on the conversion process have served to dampen the enthusiasm of those who have tied their fates to the Jewish state and now wish to become more fully a part of the Jewish people,” Sharansky told Haaretz at the time.