Interior minister revives efforts for Orthodox control over Jewish conversion

Interior minister revives efforts for Orthodox control over Jewish conversion

Aryeh Deri reportedly asks prime minster to distribute memorandum for bill seeking to recognize only conversions authorized by the ultra-Orthodox state rabbinate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Shas party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Shas party chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri is seeking to revive efforts aimed at giving the Orthodox state rabbinate sole control over conversions, in a move that would prevent private Orthodox conversions and those by the Conservative and Reform movements.

Deri, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to distribute to coalition members a memorandum for a bill that would only recognize solely conversions approved by the state rabbinate, which is under ultra-Orthodox control, the Walla news website reported on Wednesday.

The question of who can carry out conversions to Judaism in Israel has in the past sparked coalition crises as ultra-Orthodox parties strove to keep the practice confined to state bodies under their control.

A March 2016 decision by the High Court ruled that non-Israelis who underwent conversion in Israel under private Orthodox rabbinical courts outside of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate could seek Israeli citizenship.

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 2018, with Netanyahu promising to set up a committee to resolve the crisis. The committee was never formed and instead the prime minister appointed former justice minister Moshe Nissim to draft recommendations on the issue, but ultra-Orthodox parties rejected his conclusions. Since then the issue has remained dormant.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman wears a protective face mask during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on June 7, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Opposition Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman, who has clashed with the ultra-Orthodox parties in the past as he championed secular rights — including alternative options for conversion — said Deri’s move “comes as a direct continuation of the harassment of immigrants from the former Soviet Union by the Interior Ministry that Deri leads.”

Liberman, also an immigrant from the former USSR, vowed that “after the next elections we will make sure a coalition is established without ultra-Orthodox coercion.”

Hundreds of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union who qualified as Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel (under regulations that accept those with at least one Jewish grandparent), cannot marry under the auspices of the rabbinate, because according to Jewish religious law, a Jew, except for converts, is defined by having a Jewish mother.

The strict and often arduous conversion demands by the rabbinate deters many from even trying the process.

Shuki Friedman, director of the Religion and State department at Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avoda. (Courtesy: Shuki Friedman)

On Wednesday Deri told the ultra-Orthodox Radio Kol Chai station that it would now be easier to advance the bill, as opposition it had faced in the past from previous coalition partners Yisrael Beytenu and the national religious Yamina party was no longer an issue as both parties are no longer in government.

Deri said some in Yamina had opposed the bill because it would have also limited the work of Tzohar, a religious-Zionist organization that aims to bridge the gaps between secular and religious Israelis by finding alternatives to the rabbinate on matters like Jewish weddings, prayer services and supervision of kosher food.

Shuki Friedman, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Religion, Nation and State, said in a statement that the bill would again impact relations with Jewish communities abroad.

“The Interior Minister’s attempt to bypass the High Court ruling and further consolidate the rabbinate monopoly in the area of ​​conversion would violate the balance created and also result in another explosion between the State of Israel and Diaspora.”

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