Jewish Leaders Reject New Bill That Would Grant Orthodox Movement Control Over Conversions in Israel

Jewish Federations of North America says new draft is ‘not a compromise’ and must be revisited, while Reform movement head says bill would give ‘monopoly’ to Orthodox movement

Demonstrators protesting against the draft conversion law and cancellation of the Western Wall prayer space agreement, in Jerusalem, June 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Jewish Federations of North America expressed deep disappointment Monday over the Israeli government’s proposed compromise bill on conversions in Israel.

It had hoped the bill would include meaningful concessions to the non-Orthodox movements and the more liberal streams of Orthodoxy.

As revealed by Haaretz on Sunday, the new proposal – submitted at the request of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – would grant the Orthodox movement exclusive control over conversions in Israel. It would deny recognition to conversions performed in Israel by all private rabbinical courts, including those run by the Orthodox movement.

The proposal was submitted in the form of a draft bill prepared by former Likud minister Moshe Nissim.

A spokesperson for JFNA told Haaretz: “JFNA was consulted initially. This is not a compromise. We urge that the document be sent back to be redrafted with real compromise in mind.”

The JFNA serves as the umbrella organization for hundreds of Jewish communities and federations across North America.

Netanyahu had tapped Nissim to draft a compromise proposal after pressure last year from Jewish world leaders, who were outraged by the original conversion bill drafted by ultra-Orthodox parties in the prime minister’s government. That bill was supposed to come up for a vote last summer.

Netanyahu is scheduled to discuss the bill in the coming days with both Nissim and outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. It is possible changes will be introduced as a result of this meeting, considering the already emerging opposition.

Although the bill only applies to conversions performed in Israel, Jewish leaders abroad are concerned by the message it conveys that only strictly Orthodox conversions are legitimate.

The Reform movement also expressed opposition to the Nissim compromise. 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.”

“We have no doubt that the Jewish world, in Israel and the Diaspora, will oppose this sort of legislation, and we expect the parties in the ruling coalition that are committed to the immigrant population and to freedom of religion will oppose it as well,” he said.

When asked for his response, Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Conservative-Masorti movement in Israel, said: “No comment.”

Uri Keidar, executive director of Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an organization that advocates for religious freedom, said, “In order to maintain Israel as the Jewish and democratic homeland of the Jewish people, we need to have a much broader and diverse concept of Judaism. We will do everything possible to make sure this legislation will be dead on arrival when it gets to the Knesset floor.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, the president and CEO of Hiddush, another organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel, described the new bill as a “mega-mine.”

“Contrary to previous struggles around the issue of ‘Who is a Jew?,’ which have occurred in virtually every decade since the state was created, this time it is not only non-Orthodox Jews being targeted, but also modern Orthodox,” Regev said.

He predicted, however, that if passed into law, it would have a positive effect on the struggle for religious freedom in Israel. “It will provide a shot of adrenaline to our struggle, which will enjoy greater support than ever this time around from all the enlightened streams of Judaism in the world, including modern Orthodoxy," he said.

The compromise bill is likely to spark opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset as well, since it weakens the authority of the Chief Rabbinate to a certain extent.

The existing, state-run conversion system operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office. Converts who go through this system – although not all do – receive a certificate signed by the Rabbinate’s office. Under the new bill, the state-run conversion system would operate as an independent authority, outside of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Rabbinate would no longer sign off on conversions.

At the same time, though, the Rabbinate would not lose complete control of conversions because, under the new bill, it would have a say in appointments to the board of the new authority.