Draft bill said to give Orthodox sole control over Jewish conversion in Israel
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Draft bill said to give Orthodox sole control over Jewish conversion in Israel

Proposed legislation comes amid tensions between Israel and Diaspora communities, and a coalition crisis with ultra-Orthodox parties

Convert 'Katya' and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K'halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (courtesy)
Convert 'Katya' and her daughter sit before the independent Giyur K'halacha conversion court, led by Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch (center) on August 10, 2015. (courtesy)

A draft bill that is to be presented to the Knesset in the next few weeks will give Orthodox Jews sole control over conversion in Israel, though the bill will also take it out of the hands of the Rabbinate, the Haaretz newspaper reported Sunday.

The draft legislation is a response to a March 2016 Supreme Court ruling that allowed those undergoing private Orthodox conversions in Israel to become citizens under the Law of Return. The court ruling allowed for conversions according to Orthodox Jewish law (halacha), but outside the bureaucracy of the Chief Rabbinate, to be recognized as Jewish.

Following that ruling, Conservative and Reform Jewish groups petitioned the court to also recognize conversions conducted under their auspices, leading to a coalition crisis, as ultra-Orthodox factions threatened to leave the government.

The resulting controversial conversion bill, which would have only recognized Orthodox conversions authorized by the ultra-Orthodox state rabbinate, led to a flare-up in Israel-Diaspora tensions and was frozen in June, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising to set up a committee to resolve the crisis. The committee was never set up and instead the prime minister appointed former justice minister Moshe Nissim to draft recommendations on the issue.

Former cabinet minister Moshe Nissim. (Wikipedia/Shai Degani/GFDL)

Haaretz reported that the new proposed legislation is likely to also cause controversy with the Conservative and Reform leadership, as it recommends the creation of a new conversion body independent of the current rabbinate and the Prime Minister’s Office, which will nonetheless give the Orthodox rabbinate a say in the appointments to the body.

However, in a contradictory report, the ultra-Orthodox news site Behadrei Haredim reported Sunday that the proposed legislation will, for the first time, recognize the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.

Behadrei Haredim said that the head of the Jewish Agency, an organization which works closely with US Jewry including Conservative and Reform leaders, will also have a say in the appointment of judges to the body.

The ultra-Orthodox news site said too that the proposed law will officially recognize non-Orthodox conversions performed outside Israel, which has been Israel’s practice until now, but was not officially set in law.

The proposed legislation will only relate to the question of who is a Jew and be entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return, but will not affect conversions performed outside of Israel, nor will it allow converts to automatically be recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish for purposes of marriage.

The initial proposed legislation was intended to negate the conversions of the Giyur Kahalacha private Orthodox conversion court, which was established three years ago largely in order to help Jews from the former Soviet Union who qualified as Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel (under regulations that say at least one grandparent must be Jewish), but who cannot marry under the auspices of the Rabbinate, because according to Jewish religious law, a Jew who is not a convert must have a Jewish mother.

It would have also ruled out conversions by the nationalist-religious Tzohar organization.

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