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Ben Gvir calls for revoking state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions

Far-right leader seeks law that would only accept conversions performed ‘in accordance with Jewish law’ for citizenship; Reform leader warns of ‘irreparable rift with Diaspora’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Far-right leader Itamar Ben Gvir on Sunday demanded that the presumed incoming coalition pass a law to end recognition of Reform conversions for the purposes of citizenship.

This latest demand in the ongoing coalition negotiations was quickly denounced by the Reform and Conservative religious rights groups, particularly the Reform movement’s legal arm, the Israel Religious Action Center. The outgoing diaspora affairs minister called the proposal an unnecessary provocation as only an exceedingly small number of Reform converts request Israeli citizenship while the symbolism of the move would ostracize non-Orthodox Jews from Israel.

For years, Israel has accepted conversions performed by the Reform movement abroad as sufficient for Israeli citizenship, and last year the High Court of Justice ruled that such conversions performed in Israel would be recognized as well — for people who had already been living in Israel without citizenship.

This was possible because Israel’s Law of Return, which largely determines the country’s immigration policies, had left the issue of conversions deliberately vague, not specifying if they had to be performed by an Orthodox rabbi. As a result of this ambiguity, the court ruled that any conversion performed by an established community would suffice, including non-Orthodox ones, much to the consternation of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and religious political parties.

In a statement, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party said he was demanding a law that would overturn this ruling, establishing that “only a Jew who converted in accordance with Jewish law (halacha) would be eligible [for citizenship] under the Law of Return.”

Such a law would likely revoke recognition of conversions performed by Conservative rabbis as well, though they are conducted in accordance with Jewish law. Ben Gvir’s office did not immediately clarify the matter.

This latest demand to give recognition only to Orthodox conversions comes days after Ben Gvir’s political partner, Bezalel Smotrich, issued his own contentious demand to remove the so-called “grandchild clause” of Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, provided they don’t practice another religion.

“This demand, if granted, means a clear and sharp rift between us and the majority of the Jewish community in the United State of America. This is the largest Jewish community in the world after Israel, they have a great influence and are vital for Israel and for our ties with the US,” Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said in an interview with the Kan broadcaster on Sunday morning.

“Immigration from the USA is small, at best — about 2,500 per year. Perhaps, let’s say, a few dozen of them are Reform converts. This presents no threat to the established norms of the country. There is no need for such intimidations, and certainly not for decisions that will lead to devastating results between the State of Israel and world Jewry. What kind of country will be here for us in the coming years?” he said.

Shai’s warning was echoed by the Reform movement, which called for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the presumed next prime minister, to reject Ben Gvir’s request.

“The demands to cancel recognition of Reform conversions and to alter the Law of Return are dangerous demands that will mean the State of Israel will stop being the country of the entire Jewish people and will instead become an Orthodox-Haredi Jewish state. These steps will cause an irreparable rift with Diaspora Jewry, and we hope that the prime minister-elect will not accept them,” the head of the Reform movement’s IRAC, Orly Erez Likhovski, said in a statement.

The Conservative movement similarly denounced the proposal, with its Rabbinical Assembly saying it denounces “all initiatives that challenge the auspices of the main streams of Judaism and which seek to disrupt the critical foundation of religious pluralism that allows the State of Israel to survive and flourish.”

The Assembly added that denying the “authenticity of Reform and Masorti-Conservative Judaism would effectively sever Israel’s connection with millions of Jews throughout the world.”

Hiddush, a religious rights group, also warned that such a move would further drive a wedge between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, a sizable percentage of which identifies with the Reform and Conservative movements.

“Ben Gvir is dangerous to the Jewish people because he threatens to cut the gentle stitches that are connecting Israel and the Diaspora in a particularly sensitive spot,” Uri Regev, who runs Hiddush, said.

Rabbi Seth Farber, who is Orthodox and runs the Itim religious rights group, decried Ben Gvir’s proposal as divisive and populist.

“At this critical juncture in the history of the State of Israel, unilateral actions that would further bifurcate the Jewish people undermine the Zionist project, and in fact, counter normative halachic tradition. Jewish law is meant to be a system that is characterized, in the words of Maimonides , as a system whose paths are paths of peace. Such populist legislation will deepen the fissures among our people,” Farber said.

It was not immediately clear if Ben Gvir’s proposal would affect the ability of Farber’s own non-rabbinate conversions, which are performed through Itim’s Giyur K’Halacha program. The High Court of Justice recently ruled that these conversions were also sufficient for immigration.

“As someone who runs an Orthodox bet din (rabbinic court) that is recognized for purposes of Aliya, I am deeply concerned with rhetoric that is dismissive and antagonistic. I would much prefer that we pass legislation that brings the Jewish people together; deepens their connection to the state of Israel; and fosters respect, even when we disagree,” he said.

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