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Ex-minister who proposed conversion reform says Knesset forced High Court’s hand

Moshe Nissim, a former justice minister, says decision recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions done in Israel was the result of stonewalling by opponents of earlier changes

Former justice minister Moshe Nissim presents a conversion bill he helped draft, Jerusalem, June 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Former justice minister Moshe Nissim presents a conversion bill he helped draft, Jerusalem, June 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

A former minister who had been tasked with drafting a compromise reform to Israel’s conversion laws said Tuesday that the High Court decision legitimizing non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism was inevitable.

Monday’s High Court ruling determined that people who convert to Judaism in Israel through the Reform and Conservative movements must be recognized as Jews for the purpose of the Law of Return, and are thus entitled to Israeli citizenship. The bombshell decision shattered the longstanding Orthodox monopoly on officially recognized conversions in Israel.

Moshe Nissim headed a special government committee that proposed an overhaul of the conversion system in Israel, which would have removed it from the control of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated rabbinate and establish a new state-run Orthodox authority instead.

But the 2018 proposal was never adopted by the government due to ultra-Orthodox and national religious opposition.

“At the time I proposed establishing courts for conversion and determined that the conversion would be done according to Torah law and the judges would be certified by the Chief Rabbinate,” Nissim told the Kan public broadcaster. “They didn’t accept the proposal because the words ‘under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate’ did not appear in it.”

Non-Orthodox groups petitioned against the status quo, leading the High Court to urge the government to pass legislation on the matter, but that was never done, leading to Monday’s ruling.

Nissim said that opponents of the ruling have no one to blame but themselves as they rejected an opportunity to reform the process and keep the matter in the hands of the Orthodox.

“They caused the High Court ruling,” said Nissim, a former justice minister.

“The High Court in all its rulings said it implored the Israeli government — ‘Please enact a law, the issue is sensitive,’” Nissim said. “All these years the Israeli government and Knesset did not see fit to do it.”

In this Nov. 2, 2016 photo, the heads of the Jewish Reform and Conservative movements carry Torah scrolls as they march to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Israel’s High Court of Justice on Monday, March 1, 2021, ruled that people who convert to Judaism through the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel are to be considered Jewish and entitled to become citizens, breaking the Orthodox monopoly on conversions in the Jewish state. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Nissim in 2017 to review the government’s conversion policy and develop a new framework for state-recognized conversions to Judaism.

Nissim is the son of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Isaac Nissim.

Monday’s dramatic High Court decision was the culmination of an appeal process that began more than 15 years ago, involving 12 people in the country who converted to Judaism through non-Orthodox denominations. The justices specified that they had previously withheld issuing a ruling to allow the state to handle the matter, but the state had failed to do so.

The ruling only applies to conversions in Israel. A previous court decision forced the state to recognize non-Orthodox conversions abroad for purposes of immigration, but not those performed in the country.

While the ruling was lauded by left-wing, centrist and secularist parties in Israel, it was denounced by right-wing religious politicians, who vowed to advance legislation in the next parliament to overturn it. Both of Israel’s chief rabbis similarly blasted the move.

The latest ruling follows a 2016 High Court decision ordering the state to recognize private conversions to Orthodox Judaism that are conducted outside the framework of the Chief Rabbinate.

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