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Cabinet approves compromise on state conversions

Government decision expands the number of conversion courts; measure slammed by ultra-Orthodox

Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israeli rabbinical court reviews a conversion case. (Flash90)

The cabinet voted Sunday to expand access to the State Rabbinate’s conversion courts for thousands of potential converts.

“It is a very good day for Israel,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the Jewish Home party, told The Times of Israel Sunday. “It will solve many problems for thousands of Israelis.”

Hatnua party chair, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, commented: “This is a day of good news: After struggles and obstacles, the reform in conversion passed in the government today with a large majority. The message to hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, who we encouraged to make aliya under the Law of Return is that, as of today, you are no longer second-class citizens, you are part of us, part of the Jewish people,” added Livni.

The decision marks a compromise between Bennett and Livni that will allow the chief rabbis of Israel’s cities to establish conversion courts of their own, expanding the number of state conversion courts from four to as many as 30. It would also allow prospective converts to choose their conversion court, leading to friendlier, more streamlined conversion procedures, supporters say.

The decision also marks a decision to pass the reform without formal legislation, but rather as a simple cabinet decision. This makes it easier to overturn — a future cabinet would only need a single vote to reverse the reform.

A similar reform has been moving forward in the Knesset in recent weeks. A conversion bill proposed by Hatnua MK Elazar Stern and backed by coalition parties Yisrael Beytenu, Hatnua and Yesh Atid, along with opposition lawmakers in Labor and Meretz, passed the Knesset Law Committee last week and looked set to pass into law in the coming days.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, left, speaks with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset session marking 18 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 16, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (left), speaks with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset session marking 18 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 16, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

The cabinet’s compromise removes from the Knesset version any possibility that Reform or Conservative conversions could be recognized; grants Israel’s chief rabbis the power to approve the conversions made by the new court; and removes municipal rabbis’ authority to set their own tests for converts independent of the requirements of the Chief Rabbinate.

But the compromise may not be enough for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox chief rabbis, who warned last week, and again on Sunday, that they would not recognize those conversions to Judaism conducted by a wider circle of state rabbis.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and his Sephardi counterpart Yitzhak Yosef told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Tuesday that the passage of the bill’s original version would harm converts, because it would lead to many rabbis refusing to recognize the State Rabbinate’s conversions.

“There is no government service where citizens decide where they can get that service,” complained MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. “You don’t get to choose the judge in your court case.”

Conversions “require expertise,” Gafni added in an interview with Israel Radio. “Judaism isn’t a missionizing religion. They make it difficult to join the Jewish people.”

The reform would “harm converts,” he said, “because their children will become second-class Jews. When Jews convert in Elazar Stern’s ‘instant conversion’ courts, their Jewishness will be questioned. There are already [religious] courts in the world that don’t trust Israel’s [state] conversions.”

Chairman of the Finance Committee MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) attends a committee meeting on October 29, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Moshe Gafni, October 29, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Jewish Home party opposed the Knesset bill, and its Housing Minister Uri Ariel, who represents the religiously conservative faction of the religious Zionist movement, voted against the compromise in the cabinet.

Asked about the chief rabbis’ opposition, Bennett noted that “the mainstream of rabbis support this decision.” He called the decision “responsible and balanced.”

And, indeed, it was welcomed Sunday by the Orthodox rabbis’ group Tzohar, who said the Sunday cabinet vote was “a victory for those who oppose continued assimilation within Israeli society and the future of the Jewish people.”

Expanding access to conversion was vital to integrating hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish family members of immigrant Jews into Israeli society, the organization added.

“The government of Israel took responsibility this morning for our country’s future and ratified a decision that will benefit hundreds of thousands of Israelis who had been stymied for years by an outdated and unfriendly conversion process at the hands of the Chief Rabbinate,” said Rabbi David Stav, chair of Tzohar and chief rabbi of the town of Shoham.

“Should this reform not have been accepted, we would have been witness to an irreversible path of assimilation not unlike that which exists in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora,” Stav added.

Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Rabbi David Stav (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Stav insisted the new bill would not weaken the Jewish legal standing of the conversions.

“This development will in no way impact upon the halachic [Jewish legal] sanctity of the conversion process,” he said in a statement.

“More than one-quarter million Israelis, some of whom fought in Operation Protective Edge, will be able to become part of the Jewish people and not feel like strangers in their own land,” said Yesh Atid chairman Finance Minister Yair Lapid.

MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), who chairs the Knesset Law Committee and was a key supporter of the reform since the last Knesset, also praised the decision.

“I’m happy the long, complicated legislative journey to resolve the conversion issue in Israel has reached the finish line,” said Rotem. “This is an opening that will mean hope for hundreds of thousands [of descendants of Jews] who are not Jewish to return to Judaism.”

Education Minister Shai Piron, an Orthodox rabbi and MK in the secularist Yesh Atid party, welcomed the approval as a “correction of a historic injustice. Passing this [decision] expresses our moral duty toward those who wish to convert.”

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