Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a former cabinet minister to develop a new framework for state-recognized conversions to Judaism Wednesday.
Moshe Nissim, 82, a former justice and finance minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, was charged with finding a new way forward on the contentious issue that has served as a key point of friction between the government and Diaspora Jewry.
A practicing attorney, Nissim is the son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Isaac Nissim.
His appointment “was carried out in fulfillment of the state’s pledge to the High Court of Justice, against the backdrop of the conversion bill, and with the prime minister’s commitment to reaching a wide consensus on this important issue,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday.
The new plan, the PMO said, would help foster “Jewish unity” while also “respecting the Jewish tradition.”
In June, Netanyahu froze a decision to advance a controversial bill that would deny state recognition to conversions conducted in Israel by rabbis — including Orthodox rabbis — not approved for the task by the state rabbinate, promising to appoint a panel to study the issue for six months.
The Reform movement in Israel criticized the appointment of Nissim, expressing little confidence he would take into account non-Orthodox streams.
“Unsurprisingly, the prime minister’s staff did not consult with the non-Orthodox streams…about the appointment of Mr. Nissim or the framing of his mission. This is a continuation of the unilateral and overbearing way the government [has handled itself] on the issues of the Western Wall and conversion.”
The statement added: “As long as that’s the way things are handled, it’s hard to understand how a broad agreement or Jewish unity can be advanced,” the statement added.
Netanyahu has faced harsh criticism over the advancement of the conversion bill and a decision at the same time to renege on a January 2016 commitment to significantly upgrade the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall.
Both moves were seen as caving to pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
The decisions were met with fierce opposition from American-Jewish groups, philanthropists, businessmen and various figures active in the Jewish world, as well as Israeli politicians, who expressed their dismay and disappointment. Some have warned of eroding support for the Jewish state by Jews abroad.