Ministers okay bill cementing ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversion
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Ministers okay bill cementing ultra-Orthodox monopoly on conversion

Yisrael Beytenu appeals proposal that would pull government recognition of private conversions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Cabinet ministers on Sunday voted to advance a bill granting the ultra-Orthodox a de facto monopoly over conversions to Judaism in Israel, in a move later appealed by the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party.

The bill, which was propounded by the ultra-Orthodox parties, would pull the government’s recognition of private conversions, namely those not conducted by the Chief Rabbinate. The approval by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday gives the proposal coalition support, although Yisrael Beytenu’s appeal could undermine its chances of advancing.

In a statement, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who heads Yisrael Beytenu, said the bill would harm Israelis seeking to convert and that “the conversion bill in its current form pushes away anyone who is trying to and wants to grow closer to Judaism.”

The bill “harms the chances of many Israeli citizens who immigrated to [Israel] under the Law of Return who serve in the army, do reserve duty, work and pay taxes to be counted among the Jewish people,” he said, referring to the law that allows any person who has at least one Jewish grandparent to claim citizenship.

He also lamented that the current standards in place for conversions are too rigid.

“In recent years, the Conversion Authority has done everything in order to reduce the number of converts in a manner in which even Ruth the Moabite would not succeed in passing the conversion in its required framework for converts today,” he said in reference to Judaism’s most famous biblical convert.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 25, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver (Yisrael Beytenu) was reportedly the only minister to vote against the bill on the high-level panel. She later presented the appeal.

After Sunday’s Ministerial Committee vote, the bill must pass three separate Knesset plenum readings in order to become law.

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef praised the cabinet’s support of the bill.

“[We] need to welcome the cabinet’s decision to work toward regulating the issue of conversion in accordance with the law of [the] Torah only. It would be unacceptable if non-Orthodox and non-supervised private conversions were recognized here” in Israel, the Ynet news site quoted him as saying.

The measure, which was drafted last month by the Interior Ministry, led by ultra-Orthodox Shas party head Aryeh Deri, appears to constitute an effort to circumvent 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 did not take a stand on the religious question of rabbinic recognition of the converts as Jews, but did require Israeli civil agencies to treat them as Jewish for the purposes of naturalization.

The ultra-Orthodox parties at the time vowed to submit legislation to neutralize the ruling.

The legislation would also negate the conversions of the Giyur Kahalacha private Orthodox conversion court, which was established two years ago, largely in order to help Jews from the former Soviet Union who qualified as Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel but cannot marry under the auspices of the rabbinate. In Israel, the only route to marriage is through the religious courts.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, left, on September 19, 2016. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, right, and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, left, on September 19, 2016. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The bill would also mean conversions by the national-religious Tzohar organization would not be recognized.

Rabbi David Stav, founder of Tzohar, told Israel Radio on Sunday that “when only the Conversion Authority can carry out conversions, then it won’t feel any pressure to do conversions. The Conversion Authority is very suspicious of converts.”

He slammed the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism for “demanding that everyone convert by their standards, but then don’t recognize the conversions that others, like the religious Zionists, carry out by those standards.”

“Large numbers [of Russian-speaking immigrants] want to convert,” he said.

Yisrael Beytenu, a party whose strength relies mainly on the Russian-speaking immigrant electorate, said that according to the coalition agreements from 2015, any change in the relationship of religion and state must be accepted by all coalition parties in a special committee dedicated to the issue. The party said no coalition discussion has yet been held on the conversion bill.

Ultra-Orthodox parties argue that they are not changing the so-called “status quo,” but rather restoring it after the 2016 High Court ruling.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs the support of both Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties to keep his governing coalition stable.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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