Chief rabbis urge Netanyahu to ‘bury’ bill reforming conversion system

Interior minister vows to block proposed amendments giving official recognition to Reform, Conservative conversions abroad

Israel's chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)
Israel's chief rabbis convene an emergency meeting with religious Zionist rabbis against a proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate)

The chief rabbis of Israel and some 25 religious Zionist rabbis on Sunday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reject a proposal to overhaul the system of conversion to Judaism in the country, arguing that stripping the Chief Rabbinate of that authority will divide Jewry and facilitate the loss of Jewish heritage.

Moshe Nissim, a former justice, finance, and industry minister, on Sunday presented Netanyahu with his final recommendations on a proposed bill to streamline conversion into a uniform process under the auspices of a new  state-authorized Orthodox body.

The proposed changes were immediately dismissed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the coalition Shas party, and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who said they would mount political hurdles to the advancement of the proposed reforms.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset on November 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I unequivocally reject these recommendations and I will see to it that they aren’t even debated,” said Deri.

Currently, the Orthodox-controlled Chief Rabbinate has the monopoly on state-recognized conversions to Judaism, a subject that deeply divides Jews from the Conservative and Reform movements.

But although the new proposal would apparently ensure that conversions are still conducted under strict Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, hardline religious Zionist and ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders were nonetheless opposed to Nissim’s proposal, which also calls for recognizing conversions carried out by the Conservative and Reform movements abroad qualifying those converts to obtain automatic Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

According to reports, the proposed law will officially recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed outside Israel, which has been Israel’s practice until now based on High Court of Justice rulings, but was not officially enshrined in law.

At an emergency meeting attended by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and leading religious Zionist rabbis, the participants expressed their alarm at Nissim’s document outlining a bill to change the system, some details of which were earlier leaked and reported in Hebrew media.

“Recognizing Reform and Conservative converts is a very serious violation,” said Yosef. “Each and every clause of the bill is problematic.”

Yosef also objected to the inclusion of Reform and Conservative representatives on a panel that would appoint the rabbinical judges for conversion under the new Israeli system.

“Just the fact that Reform representatives are involved in the committee to appoint conversion judges is totally inappropriate and therefore this document must be rejected out of hand,” said Yosef.

“This law must be buried,” the Sephardi chief rabbi said.

Lau said the new system would “create the illusion for people that if they receive a certificate, this is what will turn them into converts.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) receives a report by Moshe Nissim (L) on a proposed overhaul of the conversion to Judaism system in Israel on June 3, 2018 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“This is an opening toward assimilation and will bring the destruction of Judaism that is happening in the [rest of the] world to the holy land,” said Lau. “The Chief Rabbinate has for years made an effort to see that conversions will be only in accordance with halacha [Jewish law], without outside considerations.”

Along with the chief rabbis, religious Zionist rabbis — including Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi Tzvi Yisrael Tau, Rabbi Mordechai Shternberg, and some 20 others — signed a letter to Netanyahu asking him to reject Nissim’s suggestions.

“We, the rabbis of Israel, regard with concern the danger to the unity of the Jewish people as a result of the proposals for reform in conversion which include the appropriation of conversion from the Chief Rabbinate and the recognition of Reform and Conservative conversion,” the letter said.

“We call on all members of the Knesset and all the cabinet ministers to do everything in their power in order to stop the conversion reform, which is likely to cause assimilation, disintegration and division in the Jewish people, similar to what is happening, to our chagrin, in many Reform and Conservative communities abroad.”

Nissim’s proposal reportedly envisions a state body led by an official appointed by the president of the rabbinical court and the chair of the Jewish Agency. There will be five conversion centers across the country manned by Orthodox officials and all conversions will be based on Orthodox Jewish law. The rabbinical judges will be chosen by a panel of 11 including the prime minister, the justice minister, the chief rabbis, and the chair of the Jewish agency. Crucially, the panel will not have a defined Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox majority and will give voice to the Reform and Conservative movements, too.

The controversial clause of Nissim’s proposed bill lays down that conversions carried out by “a recognized Jewish community abroad” will be recognized for the purpose of the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship, even when they were not done in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law.

But according to Dr. Yizhar Hess, the head of the Conservative movement in Israel, the proposed reforms herald little change for non-Orthodox Jews.

“It must be admitted that the report by Moshe Nissim is revolutionary to a considerable extent,” Hess said in a statement. “Removing conversion from the hands of the chief rabbinate in favor of a separate independent conversion authority is welcomed.”

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau (L) and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef convene an emergency meeting against a new proposal to overhaul the conversion to Judaism system in the country on June 3, 2018 (Courtesy of the Chief Rabbinate spokesperson)

However, he lamented, the new state-run conversion authority would retain Orthodox control over conversions to Judaism.

“Any legislation that enshrines the Orthodox monopoly, even if it is liberal to some extent, means further humiliation to million of non-Orthodox Jews,” he said. “Have we not had enough of that over the past two years?”

The proposed law, one of several attempts to legislate conversion, comes on the heels of several High Court cases that have slowly broadened the state’s definition of who is a Jew — and therefore who is eligible to become an Israeli.

In March 2016, the High Court decided that non-Israelis who were converted in Israel by private, mostly ultra-Orthodox, rabbinical courts outside of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate could seek Israeli citizenship.

Nissim began working on his report last September. According to the Walla news site, his final conclusions and suggested changes in the law were signed off on by some senior religious Zionist rabbis.

Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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