Yisrael Beiteinu Seeking Radical Reform of Conversion Courts

Party seeks to diffuse authority of Chief Rabbinate to local municipal rabbinic courts.

Yisrael Beiteinu will propose a bill Wednesday radically reforming state-recognized conversion to Judaism by diffusing the authority of the Chief Rabbinate to local municipal rabbinic courts, Haaretz has learned.

The bill, authored by MK David Rotem, chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset, proposes that conversion to Judaism be handled by new local conversion courts, to be established in each municipality by the city rabbis, as long as the council of the Chief Rabbinate approves the these courts being set up. These courts will be authorized to deliberate conversion, perform conversion and confirm conversion. A confirmation from any such court will be considered absolute evidence of a person's status as a Jew in all circumstances - including requests for citizenship or residency status.

Furthermore, the bill suggests that only the local court that authorized the conversion will have the power to annul it, and that the decisions of such courts can be appealed to a special appeals court to be assembled by the president of the Great Rabbinical Court, who will also serve as the chief justice of the new appeals court.

"This bill will bring conversion closer to the public," Rotem said. "Anyone will be able to convert in any special court, but most importantly conversions will no longer be possible to annul. The rabbis in those courts will be appointed and authorized by the Chief Rabbinate, and so we will resolve the issues of conversion in Israel once and for all and forever and ever."

Another source in Yisrael Beiteinu told Haaretz that the bill is meant to "prevent such controversies as the one that occurred when Great Rabbinical Court judge Rabbi Avraham Sherman, with a single verdict, canceled thousands of conversions carried out by Rabbi Haim Druckman." Sherman was eventually overruled by chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Rotem stressed that the bill was by no means an attempt to challenge or diminish the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, and that the Rabbinate itself would have to confirm the suitability of city rabbis to oversee conversion. "We have made conversion our top priority, and we will not rest until we get complete approval," Rotem said.

MK Yuli Tamir (Labor) attacked the bill Tuesday, saying that it was "burying religious pluralism in Israel. Whoever doesn't join the effort to remove the bill from the parliamentary agenda is crowning Orthodox Judaism as the exclusive conversions authority of Israel."