The conversion reform bill, which reaches the cabinet for approval on Sunday, contains a paradox. Three political parties, most of whose voters are secular, are promoting a new procedure for Orthodox conversion, against strong opposition from the ultra-Orthodox parties.
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Supporters portray the initiative as a masterpiece of liberalism against the ossified ultra-Orthodox establishment. But the opposite is true. The reform will only deepen religious coercion and the rabbis’ rule over nonreligious people.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have become citizens via the Law of Return, even though they are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. Most of them maintain Jewish customs; first and foremost, they speak Hebrew and serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
They are all citizens with equal rights except one: They cannot marry Jews in Israel because of the rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce. For them to marry with the rabbinate, they must undergo an Orthodox conversion process and prove that they observe Jewish law.
The framers of the reform, headed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah), hope that adding more names to the list of rabbis authorized to perform conversions will relax the stringent demands when people seek to be considered Jews.
Supporters of the initiative also offer a nationalist explanation: It will increase the Jewish majority. They assume that the religious-Zionist rabbis, who are concerned about the “demographic problem,” will be less strict in their demands for a religious lifestyle than the ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who take only the minutiae of Jewish law into account.
Everyone concerned about Israel’s image as a liberal democracy must oppose Stern’s bill. First, religion should be a matter for believers, not the state. People who want to live according to Jewish law and convert should do so without government intervention.
Second, Stern and his partners are telling hundreds of thousands of Israelis that the citizenship they received via the Law of Return and the obligations they fulfill are not enough — and they’re condemned to be second-class citizens until they receive “the rebbe’s approval.” Third, the nationalist justification of “strengthening the Jewish majority” once again places the Arabs in a position of institutionalized inferiority.
Regarding the question of “who is a Jew,” the secular parties should address the problem created by the gap between the Law of Return and Jewish law in one way only: abolishing the Orthodox monopoly and instituting civil marriage and divorce for all Israelis, regardless of origin, religion or gender. That's the custom in all Western democracies, of which Israel considers itself a part. The conversion reform will only lower Israel further into the abyss of theocracy.