Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned a major gathering of North American Jews on Wednesday that he probably would not be able to push through a compromise deal on conversions, which had originally been initiated in order to avert a crisis with Diaspora Jewry.
This was because of opposition within his government, he said.
“I think it’s a good compromise, but I don’t know if I have the ability to pass it,” Netanyahu told the closing plenary session of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, convening this year in Tel Aviv.
He was referring to a draft bill prepared by Moshe Nissim, a former Israeli justice minister, that would have established a new state-run Orthodox authority – not under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, which currently has a monopoly on conversions – in order to speed up the rate of conversions for hundreds of thousands of Israelis.
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The proposed legislation is the latest in a series of attempts in recent decades to reach a compromise on the thorny issue of conversion that would be acceptable to the majority of Jews around the world. Under the draft bill, conversions performed by private Orthodox rabbinical courts would no longer be recognized.
Israel’s chief rabbis, as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, are fiercely opposed to the deal because it would wrest control over conversions from the office of the Chief Rabbinate. The Reform and Conservative movements have also expressed reservations about the compromise, though not as vehemently, because it would not recognize conversions performed by their rabbis in Israel.
“It’s being smacked on the side of the Orthodox and smacked on the side of the non-Orthodox,” Netanyahu told thousands of delegates at the GA.
In June 2017, 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 Rabbinate-sanctioned state system.
Facing backlash from Jewish leaders abroad, Netanyahu announced a six-month suspension of the draft bill during which time an alternative would be drawn up by a special committee. Netanyahu never appointed such a committee, but two months later, assigned Nissim the task of resolving the crisis. Nissim presented his proposal to Netanyahu in June. It has not yet come up for a vote, nor has any vote been scheduled.
In his talk with the GA, Netanyahu also downplayed the grievances of the Reform and Conservative movements over his decision to suspend a government-approved plan to create a new and improved egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. He insisted that he was following through with the basic tenets of the plan, with the exception of some “explanatory note that implied indirect recognition of the Conservative and Reform streams.”
The reason he could not follow through with it in its entirety, Netanyahu said, was that he came under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties which threatened to pull out of the government.
“Rather than cancel this agreement because of this explanatory note, I said we’ll just suspend it, and at the same time move ahead with what it says about refurbishing the plaza,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu promised that the new egalitarian prayers plaza, which he expected to be completed despite “impossible regulatory work,” would be “safe and beautiful.”
U.S. Ambassador David Friedman addressed the GA ahead of the premier's speech and said that while the theme of the assembly was "let's talk," it was now his time to talk.
Of the rift between U.S. Jewry and Israel, Friedman said "we in the Diaspora need to give Israel a break." He also dubbed himself an "unapologetic right-wing defender of Israel. I'm a security hawk."
"Israel is no longer the little brother, Israel is the big brother now. It has the biggest Jewish community," Friedman said.
Last year, at the GA held in Los Angeles, Netanyahu told delegates that he hoped the work would be completed within a year.
“I want Israel to be the home of all Jews,” he told the delegates gathered in Tel Aviv. “I don’t care if they’re Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. I don’t even care if they’re secular or non-believers.”
“Israel is the home of every Jew. Period,” he said.
Responding to Wednesday's speech, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said it proved that Netanyahu “refuses to acknowledge the depth of the rift with Diaspora Jewry, and yet again, he is unprepared to take responsibility for his role in it.” Kariv described Netanyahu’s suggestion that the Western Wall deal was being implemented in a suitable manner as “scandalous.”
Yizhar Hess, director of the Conservative movement in Israel, said in response to Netanyahu’s remarks: “We have a long and complicated history with the prime minister’s promises at GA events. It appears that when he is addressing audiences of North American Jews, the prime minister feels comfortable promising that very soon Israel will become a paradise for Conservative and Reform Jews. Sadly, we have yet to see these promises translated into reality.”
Netanyahu delivered his remarks through a question-and-answer session with Richard Sandler, the outgoing chairman of the board of trustees of the JFNA. Netanyahu told the crowd that his main concern regarding the future of the Jewish people was the “loss of identity” of Jews living in the Diaspora.
“It’s not the question of the wall or conversion,” he said, “it’s the loss of identity.” He said that Jewish survival in Israel was guaranteed “if we defend our state,” but implied that the same was not true of Jewish survival outside Israel.